Category Archives: Interviews with Paddy

South Bank Show on Vimeo

Ever wary that material on You Tube etc may be taken down (there are too many broken links in the Video category), I’m posting this as a separate post just in case the You Tube version I published on 9 June 2019 (was it really almost one year ago?!!!!) is removed.

South Bank Show 15 minute excerpt from the 1989 show. Thank you to Freddie Gage for this.

Leigh Fermor, Southbank Show. from Freddie Gage on Vimeo.

Paddy on the South Bank Show 1989

Many of us have been searching for this for a long time. An enterprising chap called Rob MacGregor has found a copy of the part of the South Bank Show where Melvyn Bragg interviews Paddy for 15 entertaining minutes. It has been uploaded to You Tube. As we know these things can be swiftly removed due to copyright issues so if you wish to view Paddy in one of his best interviews I would advise taking time to view quickly.

Here is the direct link to You Tube.

As an alternative you might try to download the video. There are a number of programs available. This one appears to work without any requirements to register etc and is very quick and easy to use https://sconverter.com/ .

Link

Capture1A broadcast on France Culture radio featuring Paddy speaking his best French, supported by Artemis Cooper and her father John Julius Norwich. Lovely to hear Paddy speaking and also to brush up some of the old French given that we all know the context. With contributions from others. Click the picture above to visit the site and then press the play icon. The player will open in a new window and can be a little slow to load so just be patient but the quality is fine and worth the wait.

Interesting that with this and the TV interview alongside the brilliant Nicolas Bouvier, the French are running neck and neck with the BBC for airtime about Paddy. Watch Paddy here (he appears around 29 minutes.)

Traveller’s Century – Benedict Allen seeking Patrick Leigh Fermor

Benedict Allen

Benedict Allen

Many will be aware of Benedict Allen’s 2008 BBC documentary where he follows Paddy’s journey and eventually gets to meet with Paddy at Kardamyli. It is rarely shown and unavailable on iPlayer. However, there will be a chance for some to watch the programme at Waterstones Piccadilly on Thursday 9th October at 6.30pm.

As part of their “Traveller’s Film Club” series of events, Benedict will introduce the programme after which there will be a screening. Further details of how to book are on this web page.

The Traveller’s Film Club are also showing films on Norman Lewis (September 16) and Wilfred Thesiger (November 13). See the same list.

Thank you to Mark Granelli for pointing this out to me. See some of you there!

 

Rotterdam to Istanbul by foot

Patrick Leigh Fermor, 85, hasn’t quite finished the story of the epic walk he made at 18. He tells James Owen why. An old article I found in The Telegraph.

By James Owen.

First published in The Telegraph, 19 Feb 2000.

For an insular race, the English write surprisingly well about foreign places, and none better than Patrick Leigh Fermor. It was his intoxicating prose that first prompted me to travel and he occupies a prominent niche in my private pantheon of gods. But it is a quarter past three on a cold winter’s afternoon and, nice as is his doorstep is, my hero is late.

Patrick Leigh Fermor: resembles an amused sparrowhawk, alert and energetic
Then he comes scrambling out of a taxi and ushers me into his kitchen. “Really,” he says, “I’m awfully sorry. Will you have a drink?”

Age is bowing him a little now, but although he was 85 on Friday, Leigh Fermor still looks remarkably hale and, with his iron-grey hair and unlined face, could pass for a man 20 years younger, or even Trevor Howard in his prime. “Yes,” he says, “a cup of tea, that’s the thing”, and we begin to talk about his contemporary Sir Wilfred Thesiger, whom he remembers seeing stride down Piccadilly in hat and gloves “like a stern, immaculately attired eagle”.

Leigh Fermor himself resembles more an amused sparrowhawk, alert and energetic, his startled eyebrows a clue to the exuberant personality revealed in his books, most notably in the unfinished trilogy of his year-long walk from Rotterdam to Istanbul in 1934, when he was 18 and continental Europe was on the cusp of cataclysmic change.

It was a journey of physical adventure and cultural awakening, recalled in distinctive prose. His baroque and meticulously polished style, informed by a romantic eye, has brought him a host of admirers – yet there are those who doubt that he could remember such detail half a century on and accuse him of private myth-making. So, I ask him, do travel writers improve on truth for the sake of art?

“I say,” he declares, his vocabulary that of the schoolboy yarn, “that’s rather a difficult question. I think one does improve on things; it’s irresistible sometimes. After all, one is telling a story. I am a bit worried that I’ve got a slightly ‘disinfectant’ memory, as if some goblin had washed out the gloomy parts and let the luminous ones survive. But, overall, I don’t think I’ve sinned too heinously.”

Still, if you wanted to create the perfect fictional travel writer, you would be hard pressed to devise a better life story than Leigh Fermor’s. He was born of Anglo-Irish stock, his father a naturalist whose discoveries included a worm with eight hairs on its back and a particular formation of snowflake; his mother was a red-headed, cigarette-smoking, fur-boot-wearing playwright.

After his parents divorced, young Paddy’s education was sporadic. A spell at a progressive establishment where pupils and staff alike dispensed with clothes was followed by King’s School, Canterbury, from which he was expelled at 16 for holding hands with a greengrocer’s daughter. Dispatched to London, he lodged with Beatrice Stewart, the model for the figure of Peace at Hyde Park Corner, before planning his great trek across Europe.

Having reached his goal – what he insists on calling “Constantinople” – Leigh Fermor visited for the first time the country with which he would become most associated, Greece, spending his 20th birthday in a snowbound monastery on Mount Athos. He then found himself caught up in an anti-royalist revolt and, with customary dash, attached himself to a cavalry regiment. The campaign brought him novel challenges.

“I’d heard about swimming horses across rivers,” he recalls, “so I thought I’d give it a go. It was the most extraordinary thing – the water comes up to your waist, and the horse’s head sticks out like a chessman.” A little later, Leigh Fermor’s comrades were ordered to draw sabres for what must have been one of the last cavalry charges in Europe.

Fittingly for a philhellene, Leigh Fermor is a latterday Byron, a man of action as well as of letters, and long before he made a reputation as a writer, he was celebrated for one of the most daring missions of the Second World War. Having organised guerrilla operations in occupied Crete for two years, in 1944 he and a friend, disguised as German soldiers, kidnapped the island’s garrison commander, General Kreipe, and successfully bluffed their way through two dozen checkpoints in his official car.

For three weeks, they evaded German search parties, then marched the general over the top of Mount Ida, birthplace of Zeus. As the general gazed up at the snowy peak, he began to recite the first line of an ode by Horace; Leigh Fermor immediately continued the poem to its end, and the two men realised that they had “drunk at the same fountains” before the war. Kreipe was eventually taken off Crete by motorboat, Leigh Fermor awarded the DSO, and the whole exploit filmed as Ill Met By Moonlight in 1956, with Dirk Bogarde improbably cast as the burly commando.

The incident cemented Leigh Fermor’s standing on Crete (where he soon found himself with 27 godchildren), and his experiences there confirmed his love of the Greeks themselves. After the war, Greece became his adopted home and he built a house deep in the Peloponnese, close to the sea, where he likes to bathe (at the age of almost 70 he swam the four miles across the Hellespont). Now he and his wife spend most of their time in Greece, which has inspired perhaps his two most original books, Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966), distillations respectively of the history, folklore and culture of the far south and north of a country that has since vanished forever.

“I think Greece has changed, on the whole, for the good,” he says, “but tourism has spoilt it more than the Greeks themselves realise. Yet I still like the Greeks and one’s always grateful to countries where one is happy.”

He now intends to stay close to home, “tinkering with one’s work”. He much prefers research to the painful business of writing and re-writing; his prose usually goes through four or five drafts before he deems it to have passed muster. I ask him if he thinks he has written enough. “No!” he says sharply. “I’ve been far too slow, mucking about, wasting time. Of course, I ought to have written a great deal more.

“Sometimes it does rip ahead. The first time it happened to me I was in the deserted monastery of Sant’ Antonio, outside Rome, where I was toiling on The Traveller’s Tree [his book about the Caribbean]. I started after dinner and went on for what I thought was two or three hours, whipping away, when I noticed something funny about the light. Then the birds began to sing all around the monastery. I’d been writing from dinner time to dawn.”

There are two more books that he would like to write, he says. The first is an account of the Resistance movement on Crete, which he feels duty-bound to record. The other is his current project, and will come as welcome relief to those addicts of Leigh Fermor who have been waiting 15 years since the last instalment of his walk – Between the Woods and the Water – to see if he reaches Constantinople.

“It’s been very desultory and jerky,” he confesses, “but I’ve got to finish what I’m working on, the third step of that journey. I’m not sure now if this is a good title, but I’d thought of calling it ‘Parallax’, which means looking at the same thing from a different angle – the time when all this happened and now, when one is old Methuselah scribbling away.

“At my immense age, when I look back, I think: ‘Thank God I didn’t let every opportunity slip by.’ ” Good grief, I say, what did you fail to cram in? But Patrick Leigh Fermor just smiles good-naturedly, as if to say: “Yes, well, now that’s another story.”

A Visit with Patrick Leigh Fermor, Part 3

Paddy in uniform

Part 3 of Ben Downing’s meeting with Paddy in 2001 at Kardamyli.  Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

by Ben Downing.

This text originally appeared in issue 165 of The Paris Review, Spring 2003.

There was an incident dating from this vagabond period—from 1956, to be exact—that I was keen to ask Paddy about. Some weeks earlier I had come across, in a sort of anthology of classic put-downs, an anecdote about a contretemps between Paddy and Somerset Maugham. When I asked Paddy about it, he ferreted out a photcopy of a letter he had written at the time to a friend of everyone concerned, Deborah Devonshire, in which he describes what happened. It begins by telling how, after a week in the Alps with director Michael Powell’s team shooting Ill Met by Moonlight (Moss’s account of the Kreipe abduction), Paddy—who is, incidentally, played by Dirk Bogarde in the movie—had settled down to write in a friendly curé’s garden. The letter proceeds as follows:

Before I’d set out, Annie [Fleming, wife of novelist Ian] told me that “Willy” had asked her to stay and to bring anyone she liked (so why not me) and when she got to the Villa Mauresque she rang up, announced the O.K., and collected me in a borrowed car.

Lunch went swimmingly: Annie, Mr Maugham, his friend Alan Searle, and me. So well that, when we got up, Maugham—looking rather like a friendly Gladstone bag—said that he hoped I would stay and go on with my writing, and showed me a charming room. So all prospects glowed when we assembled on the terrace before dinner. The only other guests were a Mr and Mrs Frere; he was Mr Maugham’s publisher at Heinemann and she was Edgar Wallace’s daughter. Making conversation over marvellously strong drinks, I asked her if her husband was anything to do with someone I knew with the same name. She said she wasn’t sure: what did he do? I said,

“He’s a herald.”

“What sort of a herald?”

“Oh, you know, works in the College of Arms—he’s Rougedragon Pursuivant, or something like that.”

“How interesting.”

“Well, he’s an exception to Diana Cooper’s generalization.”

“Oh, what is that?”

“She says it’s generally believed that all heralds stutter.”

“How do you mean?”

“You know, stammer, have an impediment in their speech.” After this I rambled on about Diana’s splendid generalizations. “She says it’s well known that all Quakers are colourblind, and she remembers that, when she was a girl, Liberal M.P.s never travelled anywhere without an aneroid barometer. And so on.”

More dry Martinis were handed round, swallowed, and replaced. During a lull in the talk, Mr Maugham said:

“T-today is the F-feast of the As-sumption of the B-blessed Virgin M-Mary, and n-none of the g-gardeners have d-done a s-stroke of w-work.”I was fascinated by the mention of this religious feast and broke in with:“

The Feast of the Assumption! You know that huge picture in the Louvre, I think by Correggio, with the Blessed Virgin whirling into the sky as though shot out of a gun through a dozen rings of cloud, and scores of seraphim and cherubim? I’ll never forget the reaction of Robin Fedden—he had a charming stammer, and he exclaimed, ‘That’s what I c-call an unw-warrantable as-sumption!’” Soon after we were bidden indoors for a delicious dinner. After the guests had left and we were enjoying a nightcap, Mr Maugham got up, shuffled across the Aubusson, and with a limp handshake said—I won’t indicate the stutters any more—“Well, I will say goodnight now and perhaps I should say goodbye too, as I expect that I will be in bed tomorrow when you leave,” then ambled off.

The odd thing is that, until that moment, neither Annie, Alan, nor I had been aware of anything being wrong. For a minute or two we were genuinely puzzled, until Alan rather tentatively said, “Do you think it might have anything to do with the stammering?” and we all saw the light. Much wine had passed our lips. Annie was in fits of laughter and Alan joined her, but I felt very upset. After all, our host had been extremely kind and welcoming. But could he really have thought it had been on purpose? Of course I knew all about the youthful agonies caused by the impediment. In Of Human Bondage—an early, partly autobiographical book, and perhaps his best—he turns the stutter into actual physical lameness. My predicament, helped by several Martinis, was a classic instance of Freudian Error, exactly like the case of the woman warned against making any tactless remarks about noses, when an unknown visitor with an enormous one was expected to tea. The moment the guest sat down, she asked, “Would you like one lump of sugar or two in your nose?”

Annie helped me pack next morning. I put my suitcase on the bed and piled everything in, but when I closed it, a corner of the sheet—a beautiful Irish linen one with “W.S.M.” embroidered on it—got stuck in the zipper, and when I headed for the door it tore from top to bottom with a noise like a hundred calico shirts being rent. There was nothing for it but to slope off with some of the tatters hanging out. Annie was in raptures of hilarity at this final touch. (She is totally incapable of leaving a comic story unembellished.) I found, with her help, sanctuary in a hotel about a mile away, where she turned up when she could, like a prison visitor, to bring news; the story had spread along the coast and caused lively interest. Diana, who was staying with Daisy Fellowes, drove over with Hamish [St. Clair Erskine] and loyally pitched into my late host (“I’ve never heard such rot”) and I was invited back for a sort of reconciliation and forgiveness feast. I was very pleased about this; after all, it was entirely my fault, due to strong drink, and I’d rather be thought a soak than a monster. We were anxiously and studiously polite, but it would obviously never come right …

It was encouraging to hear, later on, that Cyril [Connolly] had once been made to leave the house for picking and eating the last avocado off a tree on the terrace. But I learnt, later still, that this was only a consoling rumour. He was scolded, but allowed to stay on.

Another episode that I’d recently heard about—but didn’t know the details of—was Paddy’s involvement with a John Huston film, The Roots of Heaven (1958). I asked him to tell me about it:

“I was staying in a Benedictine abbey in Normandy (the same one mentioned before) when one morning a monk called me to the telephone, and it was John Huston. I knew him a bit from non-film circles and liked him. He told me that he liked my stuff and that he wanted me to write the script for a film of a novel by Romain Gary called The Roots of Heaven, which is about a fierce campaign in the African forests to save elephants from annihilation by ivory traders. It was to be a Twentieth Century Fox affair, with Darryl Zanuck as producer and Errol Flynn, Trevor Howard, and Juliette Gréco among the stars. ‘I’m directing it,’ said John, ‘and we’re shooting in Africa.’ I told him I knew nothing about films. He said this didn’t matter, and described the plan for half an hour before saying, ‘I think I’d better hang up now, as I’m calling from Tokyo.’ Continue reading

A Visit with Patrick Leigh Fermor, Part 2

Paddy. on Ithaca, 1946 by Joan Leigh Fermor

Part 2 of Ben Downing’s meeting with Paddy in 2001 at Kardamyli.  Read Part 1 here.

by Ben Downing.

This text originally appeared in issue 165 of The Paris Review, Spring 2003.

Already familiar as I was with the main events of Paddy’s military career, I asked him to fill in the gaps. What had he done while in Cairo?

“My first leave from Crete, after many months in the mountains, was at the time of the Italian surrender in September 1943. I had managed, by devious means, to persuade the Italian general commanding the Siena Division to escape from the island with some of his staff, and I accompanied them. When they’d been handed over in Cairo, I found myself quartered in rather gloomy billets known as Hangover Hall. There I became great friends with Bill Stanley Moss, on leave from the Third Battalion of the Coldstream Guards, and later my companion on the Kreipe expedition. Couldn’t we find more congenial quarters? Almost at once Billy found a positive mansion on Gezira Island, which we shared with a beautiful Polish countess called Sophie Tarnowska—she and Billy were married later on—her Alsatian, two mongooses, and a handful of close SOE friends, also on leave.

“Tara (as we named the house) was an immediate triumph. With its ballroom and a piano borrowed from the Egyptian Officers’ Club, and funded by our vast accumulations of back pay, it became famous—or notorious—for the noisiest and most hilarious parties in wartime Cairo. At one of these, fired by the tinkle of a dropped glass, everyone began throwing their glasses through the windows until not a pane was left.

“It was to Tara that we returned after the Kreipe expedition. But the rigors of a year and a half of Cretan cave life, it seems, suddenly struck me with an acute rheumatic infection of the joints, akin to paralysis. After two months in a Cairo hospital—where King Farouk once kindly sent me a magnum of champagne—I was sent to convalesce in Lebanon. I stayed at the British summer embassy at Aley, above Beirut, with Lady Spears, who was the well-known American writer Mary Borden, and her husband, Sir Edward Spears, our ambassador there. We had all met in Cairo, which at that time was one of the most fascinating gathering points in the world.

“But I was itching to get back to Crete. By the time I managed to return, in October 1944, the entire German force had withdrawn to a small perimeter in the west of the island. The outcome was a foregone conclusion, and the Germans made only occasional sorties. With their imminent surrender in view, it wasn’t ‘worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier,’ as Frederick the Great said—or of a single mountaineer or Allied soldier, for that matter.

“I went back to Cairo for a last Tara Christmas. But Tara was dissolving, and in March 1945 I was sent to England, where I joined a rapidly-put-together unit called the Special Allied Airborne Reconnaissance Force—inevitably SAARF—for an odd emergency. There was a fear that during the ‘Eclipse Period’—the predictable days, that is, between the faster momentum of the Allied advance and the final surrender of the German army—the Germans might carry prominent Allied prisoners of war off to some Tyrolean redoubt and use them as hostages or bargaining counters; and it was hoped that SAARF would be able to prevent this. Its members all had SOE and parachute experience in enemy territory. The plan was that, at the right moment in Eclipse Period, each team of three—in some cases, two teams together—would take off from an airstrip at the Sunningdale golf course, in Surrey, and drop near its allotted prison camp in Germany. Dressed in tattered POW uniforms, we would lie up in the woods, spy out the land, slip into POW working parties, get inside the camp, and then contact the senior British officer and open W/T communications with the spearhead of our advancing troops; these would then drop arms and supplies and give air cover while the garrison was overpowered or the commandant bluffed, until Allied troops arrived.

“I found myself paired with Henry Coombe-Tenant, a major in the Welsh Guards, a brilliant pianist and a member of the Athenaeum who after the war became a Benedictine monk at Downside. Our commandant was Brigadier Nicholls, nicknamed ‘Crasher’; he was impermeable as a bison. The target we were destined for was the dread Oflag IV C at Colditz, where several Prominenten were prisoners, including the king’s cousin, Lord Harewood, and relations of Churchill and Field Marshal Alexander. The castle was deep in Saxony, and there was, of course, no resistance or SOE intelligence about it—nothing but aerial photographs to go on. We desperately needed more local detail.

“At this point I heard that an old friend, Miles Reid of the Phantom Reconnaissance Force, captured in Greece during the 1941 retreat, had been exchanged on health grounds, and precisely from Colditz; so I got leave to break security in the hopes of information, and dashed to see him at his home near Haslemere. When I told him of the Colditz scheme, he exploded. Had we heard nothing of the total impregnability of the fortress, of the thoroughness and rigor of the Appells, the checks and counterchecks, the scrutinies and roll calls? As for ‘working parties,’ since the inmates were all officers, these didn’t exist. There was absolutely no hope of the plan succeeding, and we would all be goners. Continue reading

The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo: Meeting Patrick Leigh Fermor

Ryan Eyre lives in Seattle, and took a journey to Kardamyli to meet Paddy in 2009. He has written this article for the Journal of the Book Club of Washington, and has asked to publish it here as well. Ryan tells us, as many others have done, about Paddy’s remarkable memory, which he utilised to the full to write A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. I have seen evidence of this myself. On a recent visit to Cluj I was able to enter the public rooms of the fabled Hotel New York (Continental) clutching a copy of BTWW and marvelled at the accuracy of Paddy’s description of its decor … but the cocktail bar was closed!

Update: I met Ryan last month (5 June 2013) in London and was able to show him the site of the original John Murray publishing house at 50 Albemarle Street. Ryan was on a holiday from his post in the Republic of Georgia where he is teaching English. He reminded me of this article which was posted in the week following Paddy’s death. It may have got lost in all the high frequency posting at that time, so I promised him that I would give you all another chance to read his account.

Meeting Patrick Leigh Fermor

by Ryan Eyre

On a February evening in 2009 I alighted from a bus in the village of Kardamyli, in the Mani region of southern Greece. I had arrived at this remote corner of the Peloponnese with one purpose: to meet the celebrated English author Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of the great prose stylists of the 20th century and arguably far less well known than he should be. Now in his nineties, Paddy (as he is known by his friends) still divides his time between England and his adopted home of Greece, where he lives in a house he designed himself in the 1960’s on a headland just south of Kardamyli. Patrick Leigh Fermor (PLF) has had an extraordinarily full and remarkable life.  For the sake of some background for those unfamiliar with him I provide a brief biographical sketch:

Born in 1915 and educated at the King’s School in Canterbury until he was expelled at the age of sixteen, he was preparing for the entrance examinations for Sandhurst when a sudden inspiration came over him. He decided to walk across Europe, with the final destination point as Constantinople, living, in his words, “like a tramp or a wandering scholar.” It was December 1933 and he was eighteen years old. He set out almost at once, catching a tramp steamer from London to Rotterdam and beginning his walk from there, passing through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and European Turkey before arriving in Constantinople on New Year’s Day, 1935. His experiences on his thirteen-month peregrination later provided the material for his two most celebrated books A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, which were first published in 1977 and 1986, respectively.  These two volumes recount the first two-thirds of his amazing journey by foot from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn. Richly descriptive and full of historical and literary allusions they provide a portrait of a pre war Europe long since vanished.  Apart from the extremely high standard of prose and the author’s obvious enthusiasm for history, literature and art, perhaps the most appealing aspect of his account of this remarkable journey is that it was completed on foot. It has been said that the human mind can only properly absorb its surroundings at a walking pace.   The gradual transitions of landscape, language and culture were carefully observed by PLF because of the patient, unhurried approach that he took; a faster form of travel would have failed to capture nearly as much of the richness and complexity of the lands he passed through.

After completing this walking journey, he spent the next couple of years in Greece and Romania. He was romantically involved with the Romanian princess Balasha Cantacuzene, living with her on her estate in Moldavia until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, at which point he returned to Britain to enlist in the army. During the war he served with distinction in Greece, both during the German invasion of 1941 and afterwards during the occupation.  As a SOE (Special Operations Executive) agent he helped coordinate the resistance movement on Crete. The highpoint of his war was the celebrated kidnapping of the commanding German general Heinrich Kreipe on Crete in 1944, which he and a fellow British officer devised and accomplished with a band of Cretan partisans, abducting the luckless general from his car outside of Iraklion and spiriting him away into the mountains and eventually Egypt. After the war and in the company of his wife, the late Joan Eyres-Monsell, he travelled all over Greece, exploring the most remote rural areas on foot or mule, and developing a deep appreciation of the folk customs, dialects and traditions that have in the last half century largely vanished (see his books Mani and Roumeli).  His travels and books have never been limited to Greece, though:  his first book The Traveller’s Tree (first published in 1950) was written after an extensive journey around the West Indies in the late 1940’s.  Possibly his best book (according to New Yorker columnist Anthony Lane), A Time to Keep Silence, explores the nature and meaning of silence as he experienced it living in various French monasteries.  Whatever topic PLF has written about, his natural enthusiasm, curiosity and exquisite writing make it compelling reading.

Several years before I had been travelling in Romania and by chance a fellow American in the hostel had shown me a copy of Between the Woods and the Water, in which PLF recounted travelling through the same area in the 1934. Intrigued when I returned to Seattle several months later, I had checked A Time of Gifts out from the library and was instantly enthralled by it. The subject matter, the style and the sensibilites were immediately appealing. I can state unequivocally that PLF’s writing had a powerful influence on me. He seems almost the embodiment of an ideal-the literary man of action. Highly erudite but also a man of the world, unapologetically articulate and learned but with enough graciousness and charm to avoid being a pedant, equally comfortable with the humble as well as the high born. I’m not the only one who views him this way – Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron and William Dalrymple have all cited PLF as a major influence on their writing and lives. From PLF I developed a deeper appreciation of art and literature, and renewed an interest in history-particularly European. Because of him I also became a better traveller– by slowing down, more closely observing my surroundings and immersing myself in the history of a place before I visited.

I became determined I had to meet this man. I knew he was old and in declining health so time was of the essence. In January of 2009 I was in England visiting relatives and went to his literary agent’s offices in London hoping to get a formal letter of introduction. I only spoke to a secretary, who passed on an email address to which I wrote but predictably from which I heard no reply. My cousin said “The only way to meet the blighter is to show up where he lives-I’m sure you’ll be able to meet him.” I decided to take his advice and hope for the best.

Thus a month later I arrived in Kardamyli with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, after having travelled over land and water from Portugal all the way to Greece. I had done my homework: I knew his former housekeeper (a woman named Lela) ran a taverna with some rooms in the town-that seemed the obvious place to stay.  Before my arrival I had telephoned and had spoken to her son Giorgios (Lela spoke no English).  In the winter the taverna was closed, Giorgios explained, but they would make an exception for me and at a reduced rate. Giorgios, a moustachioed and world- weary but courteous man in his fifties met me when I got off the bus, and after introductions were made, he walked me to Lela’s a few blocks away. It was a simple two story building by the sea, with a restaurant on the ground floor and a few rooms upstairs looking directly out on the sea. Lela appeared from the kitchen, in her seventies but still sprightly, with a craggy and quintessentially Greek face. After showing me to my room she and Giorgios disappeared quickly, leaving me as the only guest. Strolling out from Lela’s along the water onto a jetty and looking up towards one of the clearest starlit skies I had ever seen, with the only sound coming from the waves crashing against the rocks, I understood immediately why Patrick Leigh Fermor had decided to settle here years before.

The next morning I awoke early and walked along the road going south from Kardamyli. A Greek man out in his garden saw me and gestured for me to come inside. Without asking any questions he sat me down in his kitchen and served me coffee; this was exactly the type of hospitality towards strangers that PLF had described in his books on Greece.  Somewhat timorously I broached the subject of Patrick Leigh Fermor (known as Michalis by the locals) and asked where he might be found. He gesticulated southwards, saying in broken English that PLF lived a short way down the road, in the next cove known as Kalamitsi. I thanked him for the coffee and continued walking. I had with me an anthology of PLF’s work titled The Words of Mercury, which included an article he had written on how he had designed his house in Greece.  He described it as resembling a faded Byzantine monastery, with a view framed by cypress trees overlooking a cove with a small island offshore. Down a path and through an olive grove there was a house that closely resembled this description; in fact, it had to be his residence as it looked far older than any other house in the vicinity.

Emboldened by this discovery I walked back into town, just as the villagers were exiting the church service on a Sunday morning. Approaching Lela, I tentatively mentioned PLF’s name and pointed to The Words of Mercury, with a photograph of PLF in the 1940’s on the cover.  She gave Giorgios soon appeared and I explained that I had come to Kardamyli to hopefully meet PLF, and handed him a note of appreciation that I entreated to pass along. Giorgios told me that PLF was in England at the moment, but would be back by Tuesday and would gladly give him the note once he saw him.  So my timing had been providential!  Now I simply had to wait.  I spent the next couple of days either reading (finishing War and Peace to be exact) or going on long walks exploring the myriad of small coves and hills. The Mani is very quiet in winter and felt refreshingly unexplored. Each evening I would go to the kafeneon to sit with the local men as they chatted and watched football on the television. Giorgios would be there every evening and he was quite friendly and talkative to me.  Every evening I would tactfully bring up the subject of whether or not he had seen PLF. Each time he responded he hadn’t yet.  One evening as I was returning to Lela’s she insisted on cooking me a meal in the kitchen, sitting me down in a table in the restaurant and plying me generous portions of pork, potatoes and vegetables. On a table in the corner was a pile of black and white photographs; examining them more closely I saw they were informal snapshots of Lela and her family from the 1960’s with a younger looking Patrick Leigh Fermor in a number of the them. Seeing these candid photographs gave my purpose a lot more immediacy.

Taking the bus one day into Kalamata (the nearest city-some 20 miles away) I fell into conversation with a local woman about my age. I explained that I had come all the way here to hopefully meet PLF.  She raised her head backwards and clicked her tongue, the universal Hellenic gesture for disapproval. “The Patrick Leigh Fermor is very old man, many people, journalists come here to meet him, they have to book appointment…it’s not so easy to see him.”  Discouraging words and with each passing day I realized that Giorgios was probably protecting PLF’s privacy…it was perfectly understandable but I made up my mind to take a more direct approach. I wrote another, longer letter of appreciation (I wrote about eight drafts before I was satisfied) and screwed enough courage up to go to what I was almost sure was PLF’s house to give it to whomever answered the door.  Just as I was about to knock an Englishman in his forties opened the door and walked out to the driveway. He introduced himself as Hamish Robinson and confirmed that PLF did indeed live there. Hamish added PLF wasn’t very well at the moment but he would gladly pass on the note of appreciation and went back inside. I decided to walk south several miles to the next village called Stoupa. I had done everything realistically possible to meet PLF and if I wasn’t able to at this point I accepted that it just wasn’t to be. Walking along the coastal road with its stupendous views of the Messenian Gulf to the west and the snow-capped Taygetus Mountains to the east, I felt fortunate and privileged to be there at all.

Returning to Kardamyli later that afternoon in a state of calm resignation, my interlocutrix from the bus the previous day came running down the road. “Ryan, where you been? We been looking for you all day. Patrick Leigh Fermor wanted to have a drink with you but we couldn’t find you.”  Patrick Leigh Fermor wanted to have a drink with me? Suddenly a car pulled up. It was Hamish. “We were looking for you earlier today –come round for lunch at 1:00 tomorrow,” and then drove off. I couldn’t believe my luck…all the persistence had paid off…I was actually going to have an audience with Patrick Leigh Fermor after all — it was more than I could have asked.

Paddy on his 94th birthday (February 11, 2009)

The appointed hour couldn’t come fast enough and it was in state of mild disbelief that I found myself being admitted into PLF’s house by his housekeeper and into the sitting room (which doubled as a dining room), with prodigious book shelves on three sides.  I found myself standing in front of a distinguished, slightly frail looking man wearing a blazer and a tie. It was Patrick Leigh Fermor.  Shaking my hand, he briefly mistook me for somebody else before apologizing with, “I’ve got this blasted tunnel vision and I can’t see that well…so you’re the young man…so glad to meet you.”  His hearing and his eyesight were poor and I had to speak loudly to be heard. Hamish Robinson was there as well (his presence helped facilitate conversation) and for the next two and a half hours the words flowed, abetted no doubt by the several vodka and tonics that were consumed as well as the generous glasses of retsina that accompanied lunch. Conversation ranged from Lord Byron (PLF: “I didn’t care for him much when I was younger but now I adore him”), the Greek Orthodox Easter service, and the fate of King Harald Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066-to name a few of the topics discussed. When I told him I had visited Romania several years before he asked me, “Did you go by foot?”  Unfortunately, of course I had to answer no.  He also asked me questions about Seattle (“Where does the name come from?”). He had only visited the United States once -when he was invited by a Cretan-American association in New York as an honoured guest to commemorate the anniversary of The Battle of Crete.

PLF’s short-term memory was a bit faulty at times, he would forget the course of the conversation a bit but if I asked him about something from decades past or a literary reference he could recall it with instant clarity. For example, I showed him my copy of   The Words of Mercury and asked him the significance of the title.  “It’s from Love’s Labour’s Lost. You know that in the last act there’s a play within the play that’s performed for the amusement of the King of Navarre and the Princess of France. At the end of it they receive news that the King of France has died and the Princess and her entourage must leave. The last line of the play is ‘The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo’. It’s rather a strange play.”

Surprisingly he seemed a little fussier and more self-deprecating than I would have thought. When I quoted from his writings a couple of times he responded, “That’s a bit fruity” or, “What absolute drivel.” I mentioned that I had tried to contact his literary agent in London but without success. His reply: “Oh do you know, I’ve never met him either.”  Time passed quickly and after the meal was finished we walked onto the terrace of his house, overlooking the sea. I thanked him for the invitation.  He replied, “If you’re ever in these parts again, do come round.”   And then he retired for his customary afternoon nap, “Egyptian PT,” in his words.  Hamish showed me the adjacent building where Paddy does his writing, giving me a recent photograph of him taken on his 94th birthday as a memento, and then with good-byes and sincere thanks, I gracefully made my exit. I felt a mixture of elation –having the extraordinary privilege of actually being a guest of the celebrated author in his home — and a bit of melancholy in seeing him in his twilight years.  It was surely the only occasion I would meet him, and there was so much more I wanted to ask that would never be said. I also suppose, perhaps there was the realization that for all this accomplishments and marvelous writing he was  still human after all.

The next day I left Kardamyli. Spending even a week in the Mani gives Patrick Leigh Fermor’s life and work so much more immediacy. When I read a passage in Mani describing the view looking out towards the Messenian Gulf with “dragon headed capes in the distance,” I know exactly what this looks like because I have seen this view myself. That means almost as much as having met the man, and both memories will last for the rest of my life.

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Images of Iasi

A Visit with Patrick Leigh Fermor, Part 1

Patrick Leigh Fermor, center, with members of the team that abducted General Heinrich Kreipe: George Tyrakis, W. Stanley Moss, Manoli Paterakis, and Antoni Papaleonidas.

It has been said of Ulysses that, were Dublin ever obliterated, the city could be substantially rebuilt by consulting its pages. Along these lines, if all Europe were, God forbid, laid waste tomorrow, one might do worse than attempt to recreate it, or at least to preserve some sense of its historical splendor and variety, by immersing oneself in the travel books of Patrick Leigh Fermor.

by Ben Downing.

This text originally appeared in issue 165 of The Paris Review, Spring 2003.

Patrick who? Although popular both in his native England, where his books are available in Penguin paperback, and in many other countries—he has been translated into any number of languages—Leigh Fermor (who died in 2011) is known to only a devout few in this country, where, scandalously, his work is not distributed. I myself came to him three years ago, when a friend pressed me to seek out A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), the first two volumes of a projected trilogy about his teenage walk across Europe in the early thirties. By chance, that very week I stumbled across a used copy of A Time of Gifts. I began reading straightaway, but after a few pages stopped and rubbed my eyes in disbelief. It couldn’t be this good. The narrative was captivating, the erudition vast, the comedy by turns light and uproarious, and the prose strikingly individual—at once exquisite and offhand, sweeping yet intimate, with a cadence all its own. Perhaps even more startling was the thickness of detail, and the way in which imagination infallibly brought these million specificities to life. In the book’s three hundred or so pages, scarcely a paragraph was less than spirited, cornucopian, and virtuosic.

I am not given to idolizing writers or reading them entire, but this was a special case. Before long I had tracked down, whenever possible in their beautiful John Murray hardback editions, not only Between the Woods and the Water (which sees Leigh Fermor as far as the Iron Gates of the Danube) but also his remaining work—two travel books about Greece, one each about the Caribbean and Peru, a slim volume on monasteries, and a novella. Having devoured these, I started trying to find out more about Leigh Fermor himself. Piecing together information from his books and other sources, I came up with the following.

A clever but unruly student, Leigh Fermor was expelled from a series of schools and at sixteen dropped out altogether. After a period in London halfheartedly cramming for Sandhurst and (far more eagerly) partying with the last of the Bright Young People, he set out in December 1933 on his journey to Istanbul, which took him over a year. At this point the picture grew vague; there was some improbable story about his tagging along with a Greek royalist army as it quashed a rebellion, another about his falling in love with a Romanian princess.

The war years were somewhat clearer. Leigh Fermor enlisted with the Irish Guards; was commissioned in the Intelligence Corps; was sent as a liaison officer to the Greeks fighting the Italians in Albania; took part in the Battle of Crete; and escaped to Cairo in the general retreat. Having joined SOE (Special Operations Executive), he became one of a handful of officers secretly landed back on Crete, where, dressed as a shepherd, he lived in mountain caves and organized the guerilla resistance. His military career peaked in April 1944 when he led one of the most daring operations of the war. Disguised in Nazi uniform, Leigh Fermor and W. Stanley Moss, along with seven Cretan fighters, hijacked a car carrying General Heinrich Kreipe, commander of a division then occupying Crete. After bluffing their way—with Leigh Fermor impersonating Kreipe—past more than twenty checkpoints, they made for the mountains with their captive and spent three harried weeks dodging the thousands of troops sent to catch them, until finally a British boat slipped in to pick them up and take them to Cairo. For his role in the abduction Leigh Fermor was awarded the DSO.

After this the picture blurred again. I gathered that in the late forties and fifties Leigh Fermor had traveled at length in the Caribbean, Central America, and Greece; that he had hobnobbed—and often developed close friendships—with everyone from Diana Cooper to George Seferis; and that eventually he and his wife, Joan, had built a house in the Mani, a remote corner of the Peloponnese, where, reportedly, they still lived. But no more.

Even so, it had become clear to me that Leigh Fermor was not only among the outstanding writers of our time but one of its most remarkable characters, a perfect hybrid of the man of action and the man of letters. Equally comfortable with princes and peasants, in caves or châteaux, he had amassed an unsurpassedly rich experience of places and people. “Quite the most enchanting maniac I’ve ever met,” pronounced Lawrence Durrell, and nearly everyone who’d crossed paths with him had, it seemed, come away similarly dazzled. Also inspired, as witness this entry of 1958 from the Bloomsbury diarist Frances Partridge: “This evening over dinner the conversation turned to present-day pessimism, or cafard. Where can one look to find enthusiasm for living? I could only think of Paddy Leigh Fermor.”

Armed with this outline, I proceeded to write for The New Criterion a longish essay about Leigh Fermor, focusing mostly on his books. About two months later, in March 2001, I received a letter from him. An English friend of his had brought my essay to his attention. His response, infinitely gracious, concluded by exhorting me to drop in for “a proper feast” if ever I were in the area. That was all the invitation I needed. With typical American forwardness, I promptly called him and asked whether next month I and my wife, Michele, a fellow fan, might come and hang about for a few days, I perhaps interviewing him a bit. Whatever alarm he felt at the prospect of our invasion was muffled by good manners. He apologized for being unable to put us up—his sole guest room would be occupied that week—but said he could arrange accommodation at a nearby hotel, and that we would, of course, take all our meals with him and Joan.

Within hours I had booked our tickets.

* * *

Driving west from Athens, we crossed the Isthmus of Corinth onto the Peloponnese and spent the first night in the handsome seaside town of Nauplia. The next day we pushed on, marveling at the unaccustomed verdure—our previous visits to Greece had been in summer, when the heat turns everything brown—and at the profusion of flowers and blossoming Judas trees. After passing Sparta, we headed up into the Taygetus range, then down to Kalamata (of olive fame), where we swung south along the coast, and so to the village outside which Leigh Fermor lives, and which he has asked me not to name. Our Pisgah sight of the village was to be, our guidebook rather sternly declared, memorable: “Anyone who approaches it from these heights and is not moved by its combination of tiny islands, indented coastline, stone houses, and rugged hills, has the soul of a peanut.” Whatever the condition of our souls, they apparently are not leguminous, for we found the view every bit as sublime as advertised.

On arrival at the hotel, we discovered waiting for us at the front desk a welcome card that Leigh Fermor—to whom I shall, for the sake of brevity and informality, henceforth refer as Paddy—had dropped off earlier in the day. When I called him, he asked us to come round for dinner.

Shortly after dark, a rough dirt track brought us to the house. The front gate standing ajar, we entered and followed a lamplit cobbled path to an open door, which gave upon an L-shaped arcade. The sea could be heard heaving just below. As there was still no sign of life, we called out. A few seconds later, from one end of the arcade, Paddy and Joan emerged, greeted us warmly, ushered us into an immense book-lined living-cum-dining room where a fire crackled, and swiftly plied us with ouzo. (Their alcohol regimen, we soon discovered, dictates obligatory ouzo or vodka before dinner and red wine or retsina during; lunch is the same, minus the vodka option.)

Although immediately convivial, the Leigh Fermors had had a trying day. There had been some sort of plumbing trouble, which resulted in workmen ripping open part of the terrace. The dust kicked up by the jackhammers had irritated one of Paddy’s eyes, so that it now teared incessantly—and, as he pointed out, adopting a mock-plummy tone, “The other one weeps in sympathy.” Encouraged by his levity in distress, I reminded him of the light verse that he and his old friend John Julius Norwich had concocted together, which I had recently read in the first of Norwich’s delightful Christmas Crackers miscellanies. Over lunch, writes Norwich, he and Paddy “talked about how all Englishmen hated being seen to cry. Then and there we improvised a sonnet… The odd-numbered lines are mine, the even his.” The sonnet runs as follows:

 When Arnold mopped the English eye for good

And arid cheeks by ne’er a tear were furrowed,

When each Rugbeian from the Romans borrowed

The art of ‘must’ and ‘can’ from ‘would’ or ‘should’;

When to young England Cato’s courage stood

Firm o’er the isle where Saxon sows had farrowed,

And where Epicurean pathways narrowed

Into the Stoic porch of hardihood;

Drought was thy portion, Albion! Great revival!

With handkerchief at last divorced from cane,

When hardened bums bespoke our isle’s survival

And all the softness mounted to the brain.

Now tears are dried—but Arnold’s shade still searches

Through the groves of golden rods and silver birches.

Although Paddy laughed at recollection of the poem—“A bit feeble here and there, as it was done very fast”—he was clearly in agony. We suggested bandaging his eye, and once some tape and gauze were found Michele and I rigged up a patch of sorts. To find oneself, a few minutes after meeting one’s esteemed host, clumsily dressing his eye—this represents a curious and not unawkward turn of events. The fact that Joan already had (for reasons more serious than dust) a patch of her own added a weird hint of piracy. To our relief, Paddy again buoyed up the situation by hailing his wife as Long Joan Silver, who in turn joked, “But where’s my parrot?” Continue reading

Paddy on the South Bank Show – the last remaining feature

I often receive questions about Paddy’s appearance on the South Bank Show in 1989. There is a lot of material freely available these days, but this one remains elusive.

Today I put the question or challenge out to you all: how can we find a copy of this show so that we can all enjoy it (and legally!)?

It is Season 12, Episode 14, aired on the UK’s ITV network in 1989, and Melvyn Bragg was the host.

All suggestions very welcome.

The Longest Journey Will Always Lie Ahead

Last of the wartime generation of travel writers: Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor in 2011

Whilst digging around I came across this charming obituary to Paddy by Justin Marozzi who is famous for his book The Man Who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus, in which Justin describes an account of a lengthy retsina fuelled lunch with Paddy when he visited Kardamyli in 2007.

By Justin Marozzi.

First published in StandPoint July-August 2011

The longest walk has finally come to an end. After the most dashing life of literary wanderings, in which he crossed a continent on foot, fell in love and ran away with a beautiful princess, galloped into battle in a Greek cavalry charge, secluded himself silently with Trappist monks, kidnapped a German general, became one of this country’s greatest war heroes, swam the Hellespont and built a sun-filled house in the Peloponnese where he wrote what may yet prove to be one of the finest trilogies in modern literature, Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ultimate journey was the return home to die in Worcestershire at the age of 96, an Englishman to the last.

The death of Leigh Fermor — friends and fans called him Paddy — removes the last link to that generation of travel writers who fought with such distinction in the Second World War. The prospect of that elusive final volume, which would see our footsore traveller and philhellene complete his serendipitous, marathon-walking tour from the Hook of Holland to reach the city he insisted on calling Constantinople, sometimes Byzantium, never Istanbul, is little short of exhilarating. All his fans who cherish the densely beautiful prose of A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986) will be thrilled to hear the news from his biographer Artemis Cooper that an early draft “will be published in due course”. The posthumous gift cannot come soon enough.

The celebration of a life so well lived is likely to bring a renewed flash of interest in travel writing, a genre that has, almost from its very outset, been revered and reviled in equal measure. We may not know what sort of reception greeted the “publication” on clay tablets of the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest forerunner of travel writing, if not of literature itself, but we are certainly familiar with the mauling received by the Ancient Greek Herodotus, the first great travel writer and historian, an exuberant pioneer of anthropology, geography, exploration, investigative journalism, tabloid hackery and foreign reportage in the 5th century BC. Within little more than a century, Cicero’s “Father of History” had become Plutarch’s “Father of Lies”, a classical harbinger of the suspicion which has bedevilled the first-person travelogue ever since. From Herodotus to Leigh Fermor via Marco Polo, John Mandeville and Bruce Chatwin, the hostile image of travel writer as self-indulgent fantasist and fibber has never been shaken off entirely.

In May, the doyen of American travel writers. Paul Theroux dropped in at the Hay Festival to promote his latest work, The Tao of Travel, an engaging distillation of travellers’ wisdom and a vade mecum worth popping into the Globetrotter suitcase this summer. The blaze of publicity surrounding Paul Theroux’s handshake that ended a 15-year feud with V.S. Naipaul, another writer who has excelled in the genre, suggests that contrary to many predictions, travel writing is in robust health. From one generation to the next it shrugs off with insouciance the obituaries that are written for it periodically by writers as diverse and removed from each other as Joseph Conrad and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Indeed the temptation must be to conclude that travel writing, like the poor, will always be with us.

In Britain, which has a proud heritage in this field, the ranks of great travel writers have been sadly thinned in recent years. The monumental Sir Wilfred Thesiger, author of Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs, last of the latter-day Victorian explorers, died in 2003. The same year saw the passing of the magnificent, under-appreciated Norman Lewis, whose Naples ’44 is one of the classic literary accounts to emerge from the Second World War.

In 2006, they were followed by Eric Newby, best remembered for his brave and hilarious A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, a book that closes with the 20th century’s equivalent of the Stanley-Livingstone encounter. Newby and companion bump into Thesiger halfway up a mountain in Afghanistan, the formidable explorer trailing retainers and pack-animals bearing chests marked for the British Museum, bemoaning the declining standards of Savile Row and gleefully recounting his amputations of gangrenous fingers and removal of diseased eyes. They strike camp for the night. “The ground was like iron with sharp rocks sticking up out of it. We started to blow up our air-beds. ‘God, you must be a couple of pansies,’ said Thesiger.”

Profoundly different in their styles and interests, these three writers were bound nevertheless by the shared generational experience of war and their direct participation in it. Thesiger fought behind enemy lines in North Africa with the SAS, Newby was one of the earliest recruits to the Special Boat Section, as the SBS was then known, and Lewis was an intelligence officer in Naples.

Then there was Paddy. The last of his era was also surely the most admirable and admired of all, a Byronic incarnation of what Greeks call leventeia, defined in one of his most life-enhancing books as a “universal zest for life, the love of living dangerously and a readiness for anything”. His housemaster at King’s School, Canterbury detected “a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness”. Leigh Fermor was the leading literary light among that band of travel writers who fought in the war and were coloured by it, whose lives and writings bear, to some degree at least, the imprint of that vast, world-changing hurricane. The justly celebrated Jan Morris, who caught the closing years of the war as an intelligence officer in Italy and Palestine, is already at a generational remove.

War may not have defined Leigh Fermor or his writing entirely (it brought to an end the first of his two great loves, a dreamlike romance with the Romanian princess Balasha Cantacuzene), but his quintessentially dashing, devil-may-care war record certainly underpins much of the affection with which his devoted fans view him today. In some instances, such as that of “The Greatest Living Englishman” blog that was published in his honour, it is a devotion that blossoms into outright adulation.

Meeting Paddy at his home in the Greek fishing village of Kardamyli in 2006, it was very difficult not to succumb entirely to hero-worship. My first sight of this unforgivably handsome man was sitting in what he called his hayati, a sun-bleached, south-facing winter chamber off what Betjeman called “one of the rooms in the world”, strewn with atlases, dictionaries, lexicons, icons, sculptures, lamps, flokkati goat-hair rugs, Turkish kilims and creased armchairs. He was clasping a Loeb edition of Herodotus. At 91, lunch remained unthinkable before two large vodka and tonics. Cigarettes were thoroughly approved of and an unstinting stream of retsina flowed alongside our conversation for hours. The polymath and oenophile was unstoppable. As the post-prandial ouzo shot to my head like a tracer-bullet, I had to pinch myself to remember that this debonair specimen of the literary man of action was the nonagenarian version of the 18-year-old adventure-seeking “tramp and pilgrim” who in 1933 had set out on his life-changing journey across Europe after a high-spirited farewell with friends in London: “A thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats in Piccadilly; the Jermyn Street shops, distorted by streaming water, had become a submarine arcade.”

If the prose-poetry of his books is riveting, at times sublime, very occasionally purple, the narrative of his war record is scarcely less vivid. Its crowning moment came at 9.30pm on April 26, 1944, when he stepped out on to a road in the heart of the rough Cretan countryside, intercepted a German staff car and kidnapped General Heinrich Kreipe with a team of Cretan resistance fighters and a fellow British officer in the Special Operations Executive (SOE). From a literary perspective, the glory of this episode had to wait until A Time of Gifts, the first instalment of his epic walk — a version was written in 1969 for the Imperial War Museum. In it Leigh Fermor described the terrifying, 18-day manhunt by German forces sweeping the island. At dawn one morning, surveying the crest of Mount Ida, the general started murmuring his way through a Horace ode. Recognising it as one of the few he knew by heart, the Englishman picked up where the German left off, reeling off the five remaining stanzas in perfect Latin.

“The General’s blue eyes swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine — and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: ‘Ach so, Herr Major!’ It was very strange. ‘Ja, Herr General.’ As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”

Mani and Roumeli, which describe Leigh Fermor’s wanderings in southern and northern Greece respectively, were hailed by the FT as “two of the best travel books of the century” and contain numerous references to the courage, loyalty, humour and generosity of the Cretans among whom he fought. Artemis Cooper writes in Words of Mercury of the “unbreakable bond” war had forged between the Cretans and the SOE crowd. Typically, Leigh Fermor was not slow to acknowledge it.

In a touching tribute to the Cretan resistance, he translated the wartime memoirs of George Psychoundakis, his shepherd-guerrilla comrade-in-arms, and saw them into print. How many soldiers would have had the literary sensibility-or modesty-to recognise the value of an account told by a local resistance fighter, rather than a self-aggrandising story by yet another officer dropped behind enemy lines? In his introduction to The Cretan Runner, written in 1954, Leigh Fermor likened it to the Rualla Bedouin penning an Arab version of Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom (the contrast with the self-promoting Lawrence, a very fine writer on the desert, is instructive). “For the roles were reversed, and the British officers and their signallers and NCOs, not the stage-mountaineers of most Resistance writing, were the foreign oddities; and it seemed to me that they were far better and more soberly appraised than their equivalents in English war books.”

Barnaby Rogerson, author and co-owner of Eland, a specialist publisher of travel literature classics, says war seared an indelible sense of place for this select group of writers. “I think the war gave the best of these travel writers a very intense relationship with one region, where their literary souls got mingled with a place apart, also a sense of writing for the dead others. This is obviously true of Paddy, who could sing, dance and drink as well as any Greek shepherd. I never could work out whether he was a reincarnation of Byron or Pan — probably both. Then there’s Norman Lewis with Naples and Sicily. Thesiger similarly bonded with Ethiopia in a totally passionate way as a boy and later as an adult soldier — and of course his best books are set in southern Arabia and Iraq.”

Thesiger was always more warrior than writer. It is only thanks to the persistent pressure of publishing friends, decades after his dramas in the desert, that we have his granite prose. He had seen wartime service under Orde Wingate in Abyssinia, served with SOE in Syria and then the newly-formed SAS in North Africa. In My Life and Travels, he wrote of his “passionate involvement with the Abyssinian cause”. Letters to his mother in 1943 describe how “bitter and discontented” he was not to have played a part at El Alamein. War was “exciting and exhilarating”.

During a lunch with Thesiger in the incongruous setting of his retirement home in the wastelands of Surrey suburbia, his misanthropic growl suddenly lightened into an animated purr as he spoke of his role in the Allied campaign in North Africa, having persuaded David Stirling, founder of the SAS, to take him on. “I said to him, ‘I hear you’re going to make a raid behind enemy lines. I speak Arabic and I know the desert. Three days later we were 150 miles or so behind lines. I came upon a tent packed full with people. Luckily there was no one on guard. I just raked it with machine gun fire a couple of times. It felt rather like murder.” The glacial blue eyes glowed.

The experience of war also formed a critical part of Lewis’s literary hinterland. He wrote in Naples ’44 of a decisive encounter that “changed my outlook”, shattering his “comforting belief that human beings eventually come to terms with pain and sorrow”. On November 1, 1943, contemplating a menu offering either disguised dogfish or horsemeat, he watched a group of blind orphan girls enter the restaurant scavenging for food. Each child was sobbing. “I knew that, condemned to everlasting darkness, hunger and loss, they would weep on incessantly,” he wrote. “They would never recover from their pain and I would never recover from the memory of it.” His horror of the war, combined with its alluring and unrepeatable intensity, propelled him into a lifetime of far-flung reporting from dangerous parts. It led also to his championing of the rights of indigenous peoples in “Genocide”, a seismically shocking Sunday Times article that resulted in the foundation of Survival International, the movement for tribal peoples, in 1969.

War likewise left its mark on Newby’s writings. It also brought him love. He fought gallantly with the SBS and was awarded the Military Cross for his courage during numerous sabotage missions along enemy coasts. Love and War in the Apennines, another Newby classic, tells the story of his time on the run after one dramatic and abortive SBS expedition, when he was smuggled out of a prison camp and later rescued by a young woman, Wanda, his future wife.

The travel writer Tim Mackintosh-Smith, who has spent most of the past decade writing an on-the-road trilogy in the footsteps and footnotes of his hero Ibn Battuta, the 14th-century Muslim traveller, says the war may have fostered a certain detachment among these writers. “War is death to, among other things, enthusiasms,” he says. “If you’ve been through it, nothing matters quite as much anymore. For someone writing travel, I think this may give a sort of lordly detachment to one’s observations, which isn’t a bad thing. I’m not sure that post-war generations can quite achieve this.” For John Gimlette, author of At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, war may have been an influence that “discouraged introspection and informality”. Today’s writers, he argues, have become less detached in their work, “using more humour and self-deprecation to place themselves amongst their subjects”.

The Second World War was only part of these writers’ stories. Theroux, who lists Leigh Fermor, Redmond O’Hanlon, Dervla Murphy, Colin Thubron, Lewis, Thesiger and Chatwin among those travel writers he most admires, believes there was another more important literary influence. “It wasn’t just the war, it was also the colonial world that defined them. They were writing with an imperial confidence.” We are talking in the bowels of the Royal Geographical Society, Britain’s Mecca for explorers and travel writers, and for a moment he could be speaking of Sir Richard Burton, another soldier-scholar, who made the haj to Mecca in disguise in the 1850s. “The end of the war also brought an end to this colonial mentality. Somehow the sense of superiority was dented during the course of the war. The bloom was off the rose. Brits could no longer travel as lords and sahibs and colonial masters.”

As the metaphorical baton passes from Leigh Fermor to Thubron, a master of lyrical prose, we lose a literary connection to that all-defining conflict of the 20th century and the more heroic age it encapsulated. The memory of it lives on, recorded in the words of historians, poets, journalists, soldiers, generals, biographers and travel writers alike. It was precisely in order to ensure that the “great and marvellous” deeds of another, much more ancient conflict were not “forgotten in time” or “without their glory” that Herodotus wrote his landmark Histories of the Persian Wars, 2,500 years ago. It is surely profoundly important that the world’s first history book, a fizzing masterpiece of storytelling, relied so heavily on experiential travel. Thucydides needed to get out more.

Scanning the horizon, there appears to be little reason to fret for the future of travel writing. A genre that seeks to understand a constantly changing world, with recourse to history, geography, politics, economics, biography, anthropology, philosophy, psychology and reportage, among other disciplines, is in little danger of losing its relevance. If you want to know what life was like in late 1930s former Yugoslavia, it is hard to beat Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a meta-travel book (1,100 pages) of astonishing compass and vitality. For Iraq in the 1920s, who better than Freya Stark and Gertrude Bell to paint a many-layered portrait? The best travel writing opens up parts of the world that other disciplines can struggle to reach — and explain to a wider audience.

Consider the turmoil in the Middle East. While the breathless media rush to report the next dictator to catch Arab flu, leaving post-revolutionary countries like Egypt largely unreported in their wake, the field is left open for writers with more time and literary space on their hands to make sense of an irreducibly complicated society and situation. Digital communications, mass travel and the supposed shrinking of the world offer only the deadly delusion of a homogenised “global village”. News articles, foreign policy reports and jargon-filled government briefings on “failed states”, “post-conflict environments” and “stabilisation operations” pay only lip service to real-life complexities. What would Paddy have made of the Foreign Official who spoke to me the other day about “ground-truthing” in Benghazi? We should always beware of what Mauriac called “la tendance fatale à simplifier les autres”. Travel writing celebrates the world as it is, with nuance, shading and uncertainty.

William Dalrymple, who sped to fame in the late 1980s, after Theroux, Chatwin, Thubron, O’Hanlon and Jonathan Raban had blazed a renaissance trail of travel writing a decade earlier, points to the proliferation of fine writers of the genre far beyond these shores. It is parochial in the extreme to see this as a British or Western format. Among those with Indian roots alone Dalrymple lists Shiva and Vidia Naipaul, Pico Iyer, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Pankaj Mishra and the novelist Rana Dasgupta, now working on a study of Delhi. Dalrymple says it will inevitably be a completely new take from his own City of Djinns, published in 1993, before Delhi and India had cast loose and surged forward at breakneck speed. “Each generation sees the world very differently,” he says.

Earlier this year, Kamal Abdel-Malek, Professor of Arabic Literature at the American University of Dubai, published America in an Arab Mirror, an anthology of Arab travel writing in the US during the past century that is at once unexpectedly illuminating and disquieting. OxTravels, a new anthology of writing co-edited by Rogerson, reveals a multicultural cast of 36 authors including Aminatta Forna, Oliver Bullough, Sonia Faleiro, Peter Godwin and Rory Stewart. “We could easily have added another three dozen, in a separate collection tomorrow, who would all be in the front rank,” says Rogerson. The compulsively readable Dutchman Cees Nooteboom would surely be among them. Ongoing translation of hitherto inaccessible foreign writers such as the fabulously curious, effervescent 17th-century Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi, author of the ten-volume Seyahatname or Book of Travels, only confirms the universality of the genre.

For a final verdict from the man Jan Morris called a “transcendentally gifted writer”, I travel to West London, where the two tribes of Holland Park and Shepherd’s Bush collide. Thubron is the first travel writer president of the Royal Society of Literature, a tribute both to his virtuoso skills and, if this is not wishful thinking, the enduring significance of the genre. His latest book, To a Mountain in Tibet, was published earlier this year to a symphonic swoon from the critics. It thrust the reader into an enchanted world of sky-dancers and demons, landscapes of fearful majesty and “charged sanctity” that clung to Thubron’s plangent prose. At the Tibetan border “the ebbing waves of the Himalaya hang the sky with spires while ahead the land smoothes into an ancient silence”. Nearing the lung-shredding, wind-haunted summit of his holy pilgrimage, “the mountain valley closes unsoftened around our strange heterogeneous trickle of beasts and humans drawn up like iron filings to the pass.”

Beyond the cool, book-lined sitting room, French windows open on to the blinding clatter of summer: shades of MacNeice’s sunlight on the garden. At 72, Thubron sounds a confident note. Travel writing’s long history of successful adaptation over many generations stands it in good stead, he says. “The genre is very flexible. It will always meld itself to what is there and available, which is abroad, and whether it’s more familiar or less familiar, it’s still going to need a voice to tell us about it. I do think the world has to be reinterpreted constantly, the impetus to explain it is just a human impulse. I don’t think any other genre has that opportunity.”

From Babylon to Ancient Greece, through the Middle Ages and into modern times, history suggests this: that for as long as the world continues to change and human nature remains the same, this curious international tribe will continue to go out and travel and write and tell stories that people want to read, fuelled by what Baudelaire called “la haine du domicile et la passion du voyage”. As Robert Louis Stevenson put it, “The great affair is to move.”

Paddy, of course, put it differently. One of his favourite sayings, which expressed his own creed as well as our preternatural need to travel, harks back to St Augustine. He personified it with élan: solvitur ambulando — it is solved by walking.

Related article:

Marathon Man – which includes the account of the retsina fuelled lunch with Paddy.

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Patrick Leigh Fermor’s 1998 interview with Amalia Negreponte

Amalia Negreponte

I was alerted to this interview by Mark Granelli. As ever we have to be cautious about things that may have got lost in translation but I was a little suspicious about this interview as Paddy appears to go further out on a limb than recorded elsewhere. You will understand what I mean when you read it. Is she being totally honest? 

My reply to Mark was …

Mark – thanks for being such a good sleuth! I will put it up but I am slightly suspicious of this one. Paddy appears more political than I have ever read before. Maybe he opened up to her because she is very pretty, if a little thin.

But without further ado let’s go to the interview which can be found online at Amalia Negreponte’s website on 20 July 2011 ….

War hero, great hellenist, major British author, scholar and soldier, who played a prominent role behind the lines in the Cretan resistance during World War II (kidnapped German general, heading Nazi troops invading Greece). He was widely regarded as “Britain’s greatest living travel writer”, with books including his classic “A Time of Gifts” (1977).  A BBC journalist once described him as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene”

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s interview to Amalia Negreponti, published in my book:“Hellenists: Greece does not wound them” (LIVANIS publishing company, 1998), pre-published in “TA NEA” in 1998

Born: In England. First traveled to Greece: When he was 19 years old, in 1935, during his tour of Europe. Main bibliography: “Mani”, “Roumeli”, “The Violins of Saint-Jacques”, “Between the Woods and the Water’, “A Time of Gifts”. Lived most of his life after World War II: In Mani (Kardamyli); frequently travelling to England, where he recently passed away, 40 days ago. He will be remembered by all- and certainly by us Greeks- with gratitude, admiration, love.

Five images. A man dressed in a British Army uniform, alone, on a snowy mountain – he is in Albania, in 1941. He speaks fluent Greek. The Greek soldiers endearingly call him “The Englishman”. Whenever he can, he talks of poetry and literature. Second image, the same manly uniformed figure, next to Giorgos Seferis, in Cairo. He has just arrived, right after the tragic Battle of Crete. His sorrow is vividly reflected on his face. Third flash. Haifa, 1942. The officer, the blackboard and the class of uniformed men. It is one of the war lessons the officer with the penetrating gaze gives to the Allies.

Crete, 1944:While the British commando takes off the German Army uniform he has deceptively worn, his five Cretan companions and a British officer hold a German officer captive. He is General Heinrich Kreipe – the commander of the German Occupying Forces in Crete – recently kidnapped by the men. On peaceful nights, the captive and the English officer-kidnapper talk of Homer and the great tragedians.

Last image: Mani, 1998, in a small cottage. The man sets aside, just for a moment, his writing – the bookcase is full of his highly acclaimed books. His eyes sparkle. “Greece was in danger. She was suffering. I did what anyone else would have done. Nothing more, nothing less”. Without any need for introductions, he is Paddy. Michael. Filedem. Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Ramrod-straight, soft-spoken, keeping his youthful impetuousness intact. “Dear God! It was nothing!”, he says every once in a while, with extreme modesty and reserve, as soon as he is reminded of his legendary status and heroic activity. He talks of his books with the excitement of a small child.

Whenever he talks of the historical battles – always playing the leading role – he fought in Greece during World War II, he never uses the pronoun “I”. It is always “we”; whether he talks of British soldiers and fellow officers – he keeps mentioning Christopher “Monty” Woodhouse, Xan Fielding, John Pendlebury, the archaeologist-hellenist who died, fighting heroically, during the Battle of Crete – his Cretan companions – George Psychoundakis, Manolis Paterakis, George Tyrakis – or the whole of Greece.

We meet Patrick Leigh Fermor in mid-July at his home, in Kardamyli, Mani, where he permanently lives during the last few decades with his wife, in a cottage he built by himself. The 83-year-old Anglo-Irish Fermor, having fought for Greece throughout his life, throughout her difficult moments with vigour, self-sacrifice and passion that transcends heroism; awarded with all the possible military distinctions for his actions in battle; highly valued throughout the world for his books – they are considered “masterpieces” by the most severe European and American critics – and living a reclusive life, exclusively dealing with what he has been dreaming of since he was a child: book writing.

At the moment, he is fervently preparing the story of his adventures during the entire war. His achievements are known through official documents (Foreign Office), as well as his companions’ and historians’ memoirs. He, however, has remained silent until now.

“Since I was a child, I was determined to become a writer; that’s for sure”, Patrick Leigh Fermor – Paddy, to his friends – remembers. “For that reason – to collect experiences and meet different people and things – and since I wasn’t particularly good at school, I set out, when I was 18 years old, on a journey to Constantinople, a journey that would mark and determine my life”.

The journey lasted a whole year and included the whole of Europe. Alone and moneyless, Fermor sailed from England to the Netherlands and went on, through a snowy landscape, to Germany. He followed the course of the Rhine upstream and turned eastwards, towards the Danube. He crossed the borders to Austria and Czechoslovakia. He borrowed a horse in Hungary, crossed Transylvania, Romania and Bulgaria, over the Balkan mountain range and reached the Black Sea coast: Varna, Nesembar and Burgas; then, across the borders of Turkey, towards Edirne. On January 1, 1935, he reached Constantinople.

At the monasteries

His next stop was Greece. “My love for her was unconditional”. He lived in monasteries of Mount Athos, in Thrace and Macedonia, in Peloponnese and Athens. The few words of ancient Greek he had learnt at school turned, almost magically, to fluent modern Greek and Greece got an eternal hold on him. “And then, around 1936, I returned to England.

The months away from Greece seemed intolerable. That’s why when, in 1941, I joined the Intelligence Corps, I asked to be transferred to Greece, fighting at the time against Italy in Albania. It so happened”. And Patrick Leigh Fermor became an integral part of the Albanian Epic. And, right after that, of the Cretan Resistance. From 1941 until the bloody Battle of Crete, Fermor was there, in the first line, along the Cretan warriors who considered him “more Cretan than the Cretans”, he says with pride. “Where can I begin?

The long night marches, the growth of the Resistance form village to village, from mountain top to plain? Waiting for boats in secluded coves, waiting for drops of ammunition in plateaus, visiting intelligence gathering networks in cities, sending commandos on sabotage missions, escaping German raids, on the mountains, the eagle nests and the crags we used to live… Since the first Axis invasion of Greece, we English felt that we were allies of the only nation left to fight darkness and tyranny.

The rest of the world remained neutral, defeated “in peace” or, worse still, had joined the enemy – through alliances and treaties. When the war came to Crete, the solitary allies – Greece and England – fought hand in hand. And then came 1942. In horror and despair. England was being devastated by heavy bombardments, the Germans were marching at full speed towards Stalingrad, Erwin Rommel’s tanks and canons were hammering our lines in the desert, pushing us back towards our last line of defence, El Alamein; and the USA had not entered the war yet.

My men and I, driven out of Crete after the Battle of Crete on May 20, 1941, crushed and shattered, had escaped towards the Middle East. First Alexandria and Cairo. And then Haifa, near Palestine, where I taught allied officers in a war college. What did I teach? The essentials. Secret landings, sabotage, using enemy arms and ammunition, parachute drops, commando raids, evasion tactics, setting mobile radio stations – everything.

My heart and thought, however, were with Crete, suffering more than ever. Villages were being burnt. Thousands of Cretans were being taken captive. Inhuman tortures and mass executions were on the agenda every single day. But the Cretans had not given up. They were continuing the Resistance, in any possible way, with vigour and stoicism. But not only that. They were also helping, risking their lives and the lives of their own people, the English allies who had been trapped in the highland villages and mountains of Crete. They were taking care of them as if they had been their own children.

It was a great honour. We became and still are the children of the Greek people. I am grateful for that – to be part of such a brave and noble kind of people was the greatest honour for me. We were strangers who came to Greece from afar to take part in the battle, to fight, to shed our blood on your mountains. We, however, risked – of our own accord – our lives, whereas the Greeks who helped us at the time of our greatest weakness did not only risk their lives, but also the lives of their families and the destruction of their villages, their motherland. Therefore, let’s not talk of our own sacrifices…”. “I could no longer resist staying away from Crete – I longed to return there”.

Thus, on July 24, 1942, at midnight, he returned from the Middle East to Crete by fishing boat, assigned a special mission in Central Crete. “Hard times. We were cut off from Africa and any supply shipments, whereas the Germans ravaged Crete, killing and torturing civilians whenever the Resistance struck a blow against them. The only good thing for our Crete out of that period, until 1944, was that we were not affected by the Civil War raging in mainland Greece – we were not aware of it”. At the beginning of 1944, Filedem – who lived on the mountains of Crete, organizing the Resistance disguised as a Cretan shepherd – is ordered to return to Alexandria. “I didn’t want to leave”. However, he couldn’t help it. No matter how reluctant he was, Fermor finally left.

He returned a few months later as the leader of a highly important mission for Crete in particular and Greece in general: the kidnap of the German military governor of Crete. Unfortunately, the target, General Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller, was replaced by General Heinrich Kreipe just before he arrived.

“On February 4, 1944, I was parachuted into Lasithi, Crete. The rest of the team – Stanley Moss, Manolis Paterakis and George Tyrakis – couldn’t follow due to bad weather. During the next two months, they kept trying to join me, but it was impossible. Finally, on April 4, they arrived in Soutsouro by sea. We immediately started hatching the general’s kidnap plan.”

The kidnap

Fermor finally came up with an idea – dressed as a German soldier, he stopped the general’s car on his way home at what was supposed to be a routine check point; the rest of the team took care of the driver and drove the car and the general away – met with success.

Hunted by German patrols, the team moved across the mountains and villages of Crete “in order to evacuate our captive safely, making sure that no reprisals were taken against the civilian population”. Whenever he got off the car, Fermor was met with murderous stares and open enmity by the Cretans due to the German Army uniform he was wearing.

“I realized then what it meant to be a German. I felt lucky not to be one. Upon arriving in Sphachta, where my friend father Giannis Skoulas lived, his wife came out of their house and stared at me in disgust. Full of joy, I tried to embrace her. Get away! She screamed. It’s me, Michalis, I said. No point… It took some time for her to recognize me and get over the repulsion the German Army uniform was causing her”.

The outcome of the mission? General Heinrich Kreipe was sent to Cairo, safe and sound. “We treated him with respect, honour and care! After all, he was our captive”.

Fermor met Kreipe decades later – to discuss World War II. The atmosphere was genial… “He was well-versed in poetry, Latin and ancient Greek – I realized it when we kidnapped him. We had drunk from the same fountains, we had sprouted out of the same roots, well before the war started – and that changed things”. Even the usual reprisals were avoided.

Fermor left a letter to the Germans when he abandoned the general’s car: “Gentlemen, your Commander was taken captive by a British Battle Force under our command (editor’s note: Fermor and Moss). When you read this, the General will be in Cairo. We want to point out that the operation was conducted without any kind of help from the Cretans… Any reprisals against the local population would be unjustifiable and unfair. Auf baldiges Wiedersehen! (editor’s note: the two signatures). PS: We are sorry to leave the car”.

Fermor (his code names during the war were Michalis or Filedem), who was idolized by the Cretans because he constantly put his life at risk for Greece, seems to have been left alone, a symbol of an era of heroes. He transcends the meaning of the term hellenist; he is a philhellene, with all the idealism and struggle the term includes.

He reacts when I ask him whether Greece wounded him. “Of course not! How could she? I devoted my life to Greece; to justice. My success is my greatest satisfaction. I’m hurt when I see people attacking Greece – usually unjustly. I’m hurt when I see strangers treat her contemptuously and scornfully. I’m hurt when they ignore, use and distort history to strike a blow – for example, when they support FYROM.

The Turks

“I don’t want to hear anything more about “bad feelings” of the Greeks towards the Turks. For God’s sake! The Turks seized and illegally occupy Northern Cyprus – it’s a well-known fact. Fewer and fewer Greek are living in Constantinople anymore – as a direct result of the rioting, looting, extermination, murder, coercion and general pogrom they suffer.

Europe should never forget what Greece has offered and act accordingly. I’m not talking of ancient Greece; I’m talking of modern Greece – World War II Greece. Greece prevented the whole of Europe from collapsing when the sky blackened.

They should all remember what Greece stands for. Because ideas change, people die and monuments collapse with the passing of time.

What can’t be destroyed, however, is the spirit of the Greek people – it includes all virtues, it inspires, it shines – just like the light that shines on the Greek mountains: your mountains. Our mountains”.

“In 1941, those of us who survived the Battle of Greece fled to the Middle East. First Alexandria and then Cairo. Right there on the bank of the Nile and the city of Alexander the Great, I had the chance to meet and befriend Giorgos Seferis, who had also taken refuge there. His hard features betrayed an anxiety and a sorrow that transcended our everyday stress about the outcome of the war. In the Middle East during that critical phase of the war when everything seemed lost, Giorgos Seferis was giving his personal battle: in politics and letters – poetry”.

Seferis wrote the poem “Days of June 1941” when Fermor arrived in the Middle East, right after the Battle of Crete.

“The new moon came out over Alexandria with the old moon in her arms while we were walking towards the Gate of the Sun in the heart’s darkness–three friends”.

“There are times when I feel I’m still there”, says Fermor. “Feeling the sorrow for my dead companions and the lost battle, seeing that man with the dark eyes driving away the clouds with his words.

Just words. Words of an educated and scholarly man who had experienced the horror of broken bodies and the pain of loss”.

Fermor takes out an old photograph, depicting the poet and him. Both men are thoughtful. With heavy gazes. “We didn’t stay together long”, Fermor recalls, “I was always on the run – missions and training… “You have to reckon how to move. It’s not enough to feel, to think, to move”, he used to say – exactly the way he wrote.

He was always reserved and cautious. He didn’t talk much; you never got tired of listening to him. Modest and discreet. I respected him at the time. I loved him as a poet later. He was educated and had a breadth of knowledge transcending the borders of nations and civilizations.

Giorgos Seferis recorded our experiences with accuracy and sensitivity. Yes, we had come from all around the world, as he says in the poem “Last Stop”, “from Araby, Egypt, Palestine and Syria”. Although he was very reserved, he never got detached. You could see the accumulated strength inside him”.

Patrick Leigh Fermor The Art of Travel broadcast c.1990-1992

A recording of a BBC Radio 4 programme entitled “The Art of Travel” (broadcast c.1990-1992) in which Annette Kobrak interviewed PLF for about 26 minutes concerning his early life and his journey to Constantinople. There is some good discussion about his travels after Between the Woods and the Water, about Bulgaria and into Constantinople.

I am indebted to David Turner for taking the time to convert this to digital and very successfully too – the sound quality is excellent!

You can listen online or download (press the downwards pointing arrow on the right hand side menu bar of the player).

I have updated the Video and Audio page with the programme. Don’t forget to visit to find more interviews with Paddy.

The remains of a BBC interview with Paddy from 2004

The incompetence or just downright negligence of the BBC in relation to their archive never ceases to amaze. In 2004 when Paddy received his Knighthood he made the ‘Faces of the Week’ page on the BBC website. They also included a snippet of an interview with Paddy where he describes the loss of his rucksack in Munich in 1934. I have asked the BBC if they have a copy of the remainder of this interview (date of interview unknown), but their reply was that they had either lost it or it had been erased.

You can listen to the interview on the BBC page here but you will need RealPlayer (remember that?).

Click here to play the interview straight off.

Chatwin and Paddy: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin

The link between Bruce Chatwin and Paddy is very strong. They were good friends and Chatwin’s writing has often been compared favourabley with Paddy’s. When Chatwin stayed at Kadamyli he and Paddy often went for long afternoon walks in the Taygetos. This BBC Four programme about Bruce Chatwin’s life includes some significant sections with Paddy:

1. Talking about Bruce generally – programme 2 at around 2 minute 20 seconds.

2. Walking with Bruce’s brother and the scattering of the ashes near Kardamyli – programme 2 at around56 minutes 50 seconds.


My thanks to Thos Henley for sending this to me.

Related article:

Bruce Chatwin’s Journey to Mount Athos

A Year of Memory: the top ten posts on the Patrick Leigh Fermor blog

As the year comes to a close it is time to reflect upon what has passed and to look forward to 2012. I make no predictions for the coming year. There are some things which are almost certain such as the continuing Euro crisis and the much anticipated publication of Artemis Cooper’s authorised biography about Paddy, but forecasts tend to be overtaken by events and are quickly forgotten.

What we can do is to look back on this year in the life and times of Patrick Leigh Fermor. The major event of course was Paddy’s death on 10 June at the age of ninety-six. A sad event for his family and close friends, but also for those of us who admired him for his writing and the life he lived. As the year closed it was time to celebrate his life at his Memorial Service held on 15 December in London.

As I hoped the blog has become a significant source of material about his life including rarely seen video. There have been over 228,000 visits over the last year and you have made it a much more interactive experience by using the comment facility to exchange information, provide your own memories of Paddy, and to express your admiration for him. At the time of his death I opened a page where you could express your thoughts about Paddy which has run to over 120 comments.

Paddy would probably have been somewhat bemused by the whole idea of the blog, but perhaps even more so by the interaction we now have with social networking sites with nearly 4,500 visitors finding the site from Facebook, and 850 via Twitter.

To conclude the year, and as the 365th post on the blog, let us take a look at some of the most popular articles over the last twelve months. Perhaps I can make one promise to you all which is that there is much more to come on the blog in 2012 which includes a lot of material submitted by you the readers of the blog.

The Funeral Service of Patrick Leigh Fermor, 16 June 2011 

Paddy’s funeral service was held on a typical English summer’s day at his home in Dumbleton. He returned to England just one day before his death and is buried beside his beloved Joan.

Obituary from The Independent by Paddy Leigh Fermor’s biographer Artemis Cooper 

Perhaps the definitive obituary.

Patrick Leigh Fermor … This is Your (Ill Met by Moonlight) Greek Life 

The amazing video from the Greek TV programme which reunited the participants of the Ill Met by Moonlight kidnap including Paddy, many of the Andartes, and General Kreipe and his wife.

Anthony Lane’s New Yorker article on Fermor is now free to view 

One of the most comprehensive profiles of Paddy which is now freely available to all. (the pdf download appears to be no longer available – click on the article to magnify to read and then drag your cursor to move around the page)

Intimate portraits from Kardamyli by Miles Fenton 

A series of personal photographs sent to me by Miles Fenton who is Paddy’s nephew and who now lives in Canada where he works as an artist.

Patrick Leigh Fermor recounts the kidnap of General Kreipe on video 

The ever popular video where Paddy talks in some detail about the Kreipe kidnap. (press play on Battle of Crete 7).

Colonel David Smiley 

David Smiley was a fellow occupant of Tara in Cairo with Paddy and Billy Moss et al who continued his military career with some distinction after the war and even led Japanese soldiers in a charge against VietMinh rebels!

Paddy’s eye for detail: Ian Fleming, Bondage, James Bond and Pol Roger 

It is probably the James Bond/Ian Fleming association which maintains the popularity of this article.

If food be the music of love … Bánffy’s lover in Cluj (Kolozsvár) 

No list of popular posts can be complete without the compelling combination of my passions for Paddy, Romania, Miklós Bánffy, and Cluj.

Patrick Leigh Fermor Memorial Order of Service 

The order of service from the joyful occasion that was Paddy’s Memorial Service.

Finally I would like to thank so many of you for your encouragement and support during 2011, and wish you all a very Happy New Year!

Tom Sawford

The Feast of SS. Michael and Gabriel – Paddy’s name day

November 8th is the Name Day for Saint Michael in the Greek Orthodox church, and as the Greeks have a paucity of saints called Patrick, the tradition is that Paddy celebrated his name day using his second name Michael. The name day is considered to be more important than the birthday, and is marked by parties and gifts. 

Some of you may recall that the New Zealand writer Maggie Rainey-Smith happened to be in Kardamili in 2007 and somehow ended up at Paddy’s house and was able to join in the party.

“By 10.30am the service in his private chapel was over and we were seated in his lounge – books lining the walls from floor to ceiling: Nancy Mitford, Henry James, James Joyce – eating olives, meatballs, feta and drinking local wine.

On a person’s Name Day you are required to take a gift, and all I had with me was a copy of my first novel About Turns, which I gave to Paddy. He signed my copy of his own book with a personal inscription and a small drawing. We talked about Crete and my dad and his book on the Mani. I gushed, he charmed.

Then the singing began and Paddy was surrounded by adoring local women who toasted him with traditional Name Day songs.

At the end of the singing, Paddy stood and pretended to fire a pistol into the air (an old tradition where real pistols were once used). He is of English and Irish descent. Although his name is Patrick, his Greek Name Day is the day of Michali. Michael is the name he assumed while fighting for the Greek resistance.”

Maggie also took some video footage of local women singing to Paddy who does look pleased! (click image to play)




My sincere thanks to Maggie for letting us see this again.

Please visit Maggie’s blog where you will be able to read more about her visit and here you can discover her work as a writer.

You can read Maggie’s complete original article about her visit reproduced on the blog  here.

Post-operation interrogation of Patrick Leigh Fermor

A very revealing file from Paddy’s debrief upon his return from Crete. He operated under the cover name of Michaelis Frangielakis. It is very extensive discussing day-to-day operations and organisation in Crete. An interesting conclusion is that Italian interrogations of prisoners were less brutal than those of the Germans, and were more successful being psychologically more sophisticated: “The Italians understood the Mediterranean mind and methods much better than the Germans.”

Journalist Maya Tsokli interviews Paddy

As part of the show “TRAVEL IN GREECE” the journalist Maya Tsokli discovers the area of ​​Kardamyli, and walks down a lane to a light blue door ….

A very good quality TV interview with Paddy brought to my attention by Thos Henley.

George Katsimbalis documentary Part 2 – Paddy sings about Greek debt!

The second clip of Paddy in a Greek TV documentary about his friend George Katsimbalis. Towards the end of this excerpt Paddy is chanting a 1935 Greek song about the 1932 Greek debt crisis; how appropriate.

My thanks again to Nicolas Paissios for sending me this and the two previous clips.

Click the image to play.

Paddy’s interview on “Private Passions” on BBC iPlayer until midday 7 August

You can listen to the programme for the next seven days ie until midday Sunday 7 August via BBC iPlayer (assuming you can receive where you are).

 

To listen click here.

 

Related article:

Paddy interviewed on “Private Passions” for his 90th birthday in 2005

George Katsimbalis documentary Part 1 – by the Acropolis and at the bar

Paddy in a Greek TV documentary about his friend George Katsimbalis. Paddy visits a bar and sings a French song.

My thanks again to Nicolas Paissios for sending me this – and there is one more to come 🙂

Click the image to play.

Repeat of Paddy’s interview on “Private Passions” Sunday 31 July

The quality of our own link to BBC Radio Three’s Private Passions with Paddy is not the best, but still quite acceptable. However, there is now a chance to hear a repeat of the programme this coming Sunday 31 July at midday BST on BBC Radio 3.

You can find details of the programme here. You should be able to hear on FM and digital radio; possibly satellite TV and of course over the internet if the BBC permits from your location. Thanks to Phyllis Willis for spotting this one. The programme blurb goes as follows:

Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, travel writer and war hero, died in June at the age of 96. In 2005 he recorded an edition of Private Passions, in which he talked about the music he loved. This is another chance to hear that conversation with Michael Berkeley.

Patrick Leigh Fermor was born in London in 1915, the son of a distinguished geologist. He was brought up in England after his parents left for India, and attended The Kings School, Canterbury, from which he was expelled for holding hands with a local greengrocer’s daughter. At the age of 18 he set off to walk across Europe to Constantinople (now Istanbul), a journey which later inspired his two finest travel books, ‘A Time of Gifts’ (1977) and ‘Between the Woods and the Water’ (1986). After further travels in the Balkans, he fought in Crete and mainland Greece during World War II. His exploits with the Greek Resistance in Crete inspired his fellow-officer Captain Bill Stanley Moss’s book ‘Ill Met by Moonlight’, later adapted as a film, with Dirk Bogarde playing Leigh Fermor. He published his first travel book in 1950, and became widely regarded as Britain’s greatest living travel writer. He divided his time between his beloved Greece and Worcestershire, and was knighted in 2004.

Patrick Leigh Fermor loved music of all kinds, from Greek folksongs to Irving Berlin. His eclectic selection for Private Passions includes an extract from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and the finale of the Sinfonia concertante K364 for violin and viola; part of Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet; part of the Tenebrae Responsories by Victoria; Debussy’s Gigues (from Images); Britten’s arrangement of The Salley Gardens, and Michael Berkeley’s own Variations on Greek Folk Songs for solo viola, inspired by Leigh Fermor’s own celebrated vocal renditions.

Related article:

Paddy interviewed on “Private Passions” for his 90th birthday in 2005

Paddy talks about his home in Kardamyli and the Mani

I doubt this has ever been seen outside of Greece. This video of Paddy is taken from a Greek TV documentary from 1999. We see scenes of Paddy working over his manuscripts, views of the library, dining room and the garden. He talks of his home and the Mani.

I am truly indebted to Nicolas Paissios for sending me this – and there is more to come 🙂

 

 Click the image to play. Let it run for a while and you will be taken on a journey to Paddy’s house.

Paddy interviewed on “Private Passions” for his 90th birthday in 2005

Paddy interviewed on Michael Berkeley’s BBC Radio 3 “Private Passions” programme for his 90th birthday in 2005. He talks about his life and the music that has inspired him.

I am indebted to Georg Dalidakis for sending this to me.

Please click below to listen to the programme. Click to arrow to the right to download it to your PC.

Happy listening!

(PS – thanks to Richard for passing on this playlist from the programme)

Marathon man

Justin Marozzi

Door-stepping a 91-year-old knight of the realm, second world war hero and one of the finest writers in the English language is an awkward business. Particularly when he is hard at work in his home in the southern Peloponnese trying to finish the elusive third volume of what would be among the greatest trilogies in modern literature.

by Justin Marozzi

First published in the Financial Times February 2 2007

Yet this is no time for reticence. A man who kidnapped a German general on Crete in 1944 and then drove through 22 checkpoints impersonating him, before spiriting him on to a Cairo-bound submarine – having first bonded over a shared passion for Horace’s Odes – probably favours the direct approach. This, at least, is what I tell myself on arriving in the fishing village of Kardamyli in the Outer Mani, armed with all sorts of introductions to Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor.

In the event, Leigh Fermor, known to English friends as Paddy and to Greeks by his nom de guerre Mihali, could not be more charming when I ring him from a nearby hotel. He suggests lunch. I accept faster than you can say hero-worship.

The following day, the housekeeper waves me down a vaulted stone gallery, cool air ruffling through the arches, an architectural reminder, perhaps, of Byzantium, which, in a sense, has always been Leigh Fermor’s true north. It was to Constantinople – never Istanbul – that the 18-year-old set out on his serendipitous, marathon walking tour, a journey immortalised half a century later in the densely beautiful prose of A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986).

His stint at King’s School Canterbury, where his housemaster diagnosed “a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness”, had just come to a premature end with his expulsion for fraternising too closely with the town’s female population (women have always found him irresistible). Leigh Fermor notes proudly that Christopher Marlowe was another King’s man who got into high-spirited scrapes. His education after that – and all his books display the dazzling range of his erudition – was that of a freely roving autodidact.

From Byzantium I step back into England into the sort of room to make a writer swoon. Betjeman called it “one of the rooms in the world”. Whitewashed walls, stone floor and panelled wood ceiling frame a space that is both sitting room and library. Bookshelves rise from floor to ceiling. Light streams in from tall windows thrown open towards the sea. Piles of books jostle for Lebensraum with armchairs, cushions, icons, sculptures, maps, kilims. Browning, James Joyce, John Betjeman, several feet of dictionaries, atlases, Greek-English lexicons, pictures by the late Greek artist and Leigh Fermor’s friend Nikos Ghika. In Leigh Fermor’s words, “Where a man’s eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is, there shall his heart be also.”

For a moment, I think the man who stands up to greet me in this literary Elysium must be a house guest, since he looks no more than 70.

“How very nice to see you,” he says. His English is polished gravel, the voice of a more civilised generation. He is clasping a Loebb edition of Herodotus and is alarmingly handsome, which means that this must be the nonagenarian Leigh Fermor, no youthful house guest. In various letters despatched to Greece I have asked, rather clumsily, if we can talk about Herodotus for a book project.

“You’ve kept me up till 1.30 in the morning with this,” he says breezily. “I’ve been reading about the battle of Marathon.”

I apologise for inflicting the Father of History on him. “Absolutely not. He’s rather engaging. Now what would you like to drink? My sight’s not very good so do help yourself.”

We walk over to a table lost beneath a shimmering forest of glass bottles. Leigh Fermor has an enviable head of hair and is crisply dressed in blue checked shirt, russet tie, a blue jumper and corduroys. Red socks betray a note of flamboyance. A more debonair specimen of the literary man of action would be difficult to imagine.

“I’ve already had a vodka and tonic so I won’t have anything,” he says. I pour myself a drink from a very large, obviously much used, green bottle with the handwritten legend “OUZO”. He draws alongside and joins me for a second vodka. His constitution is said by friends to be as robust as his wartime record.

So what news for Leigh Fermor devotees awaiting the third volume, which would see him reach his beloved Constantinople after all these decades?

“That’s the plan, of course,” he says. “I’ve been rereading my notes and getting things in order. Clearing the decks. But it’s all a bit grim. I’m finding writing rather difficult.” He says he has developed tunnel vision and at the moment is confronting the disconcerting sight of an interviewer with two pairs of eyes and four nostrils. He does not type, has never been very keen on dictating and has no secretary. We must keep our fingers crossed, while looking forward to Artemis Cooper’s biography.

“Charge on,” is the cue for lunch. We leave the library and return to the world of Byzantium, taking our places in the gallery at a table set for two. An arch encircles a sunlit scene of bougainvillea amid a diaphanous blaze of green foliage. Four well-fed cats hover expectantly and a squadron of buzzing flies makes merry around us. Centre stage is a large carafe of chilled white wine. In fact, it is retsina, for which my host apologises when I ask what we are drinking.

“I’m terribly sorry. Dreadfully rude of me. I didn’t ask you. I have some proper wine next door.”

Absolutely not. I have developed a taste for the stuff. He nods his vigorous approval. “I’ve been drinking it for 50 years and it’s done me no harm.”

In Mani, his celebrated travelogue on the southern Peloponnese, published in 1958 and described by this newspaper, together with Roumeli, its counterpart on northern Greece, as “two of the best travel books of the century”, he dwells on the improving qualities of retsina. He offers the delicious observation that “one of its secrets is drinking it with unstinted abundance. It seems to have an alliance with the air in the promotion of well-being. Many people think that it bestows the gift of bodily health as well; a belief I accept at once without further scrutiny.”

We set to our lunch of Herculean pork chops luxuriating on a bed of garlic and onions with spinach, potatoes and tzatziki. The retsina in the carafe descends with the winter sun. We talk about his latest honour from the Travellers Club, which last December presented a bust of Leigh Fermor, now sitting in pride of place alongside Sir Wilfred Thesiger, another of the club’s favourite sons and fellow soldier-writer.

“It’s all rather terrifying,” he says. Flattering, too? “Oh, rather!” The eyes twinkle.

In fact, Leigh Fermor has been serially honoured for his many achievements on the battlefield and in print. His typically dashing exploits in the Special Operations Executive, rubbing shoulders with David Stirling, Fitzroy Maclean and Wilfred Thesiger, above all the audacious kidnapping of General Kreipe on Crete, were recognised with a Distinguished Service Order. An OBE followed. He is an honorary citizen of Heraklion, Kardamyli and Gytheio. His first book, The Travellers Tree (1950), won the Heinemann Foundation Prize for Literature. In 2004, he was knighted for services to literature and Anglo-Greek relations.

Ice cream arrives. I ask him whether he shares the feeling of nostalgia and regret, so pervasive in Greece, at the loss of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453. His writing seems to reflect this pain.

“Only in a romantic sense,” he says. “You can’t just forget 2,500 years of history and call it Istanbul. I deplore the Turkish role in eastern Europe, but of course you can’t blame them. It would be like blaming the laws of hydrostatics for flood damage.”

Though he is not a political man, preferring to remain above or beyond the fray, he is, above all, a European. In the confrontation between east and west there seems little doubt as to where his sympathies lie. Does he feel the western world and its way of life are under threat?

“It does rather feel like that, though I haven’t been keeping up on it as much as I should have,” he replies.

Back to the library for Greek – not Turkish – coffee. There is a splendid photograph, taken recently, of Leigh Fermor and Earl Jellicoe, wartime comrade and commander of the Special Boat Service. Both men wear dark suits, their chests a riotous patchwork of medals. Leigh Fermor’s left hand rests jauntily on his hip. Even in his tenth decade, there is an unmistakable poise and swagger.

After coffee, we walk outside into the garden. Across the water to the west lies the rump of Messenia. Beneath us is Leigh Fermor’s private little cove and steps down to the sea. This is the house that Paddy built, with his late wife Joan, in the mid-1960s. He sits for a few photographs while we swap notes on travel writers young and old.

Bruce Chatwin was a frequent visitor to the Mani in the 1980s. “People have said I was a guru to him. It’s absolute nonsense. Bruce would have been appalled.” He considers him a marvellous writer and is a fan of Jan Morris, too. He abhors being called a travel writer, regarding it as a lesser category, “rather like being called a sports writer”.

I have trespassed on his time long enough. On our way out, he suddenly leads me to another building, half hidden by the olives and cypresses. A fleeting glimpse into his inner sanctum: papers everywhere, more zigzagging stacks of books, a towering blue and white ceramic light from Portugal. His hero Byron stares at us from a plate in the centre of a broad chimneypiece.

“Do drop in again if you’re ever in the area,” he says. I may have to leave my wife to become his amanuensis.

This man, I reflect, as I drive away from his secluded haven, who has walked across a continent, fallen in love and run away with a princess, fought for his country, kidnapped a general, built a house, written books of dreamlike brilliance, joined a Greek cavalry charge and lived long and exceedingly well, is a true knight. Quite possibly one of the very last.

Justin Marozzi is the author of a number of travel books his latest being the acclaimed The Man Who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus which includes the account of a lengthy retsina fuelled lunch with Paddy.

Constantinople on foot, Antibes in a Jaguar – interview with Patrick Leigh Fermor

Nearly twenty years ago I interviewed Patrick Leigh Fermor when he was awarded a small but lustrous French literary prize by the town of Antibes in the south of France. He died today at the age of ninety-six and this account is reprinted here in tribute. To paraphrase Scott Fitzgerald, our count of enchanting witnesses has diminished by one.

By Julian Evans

First published in The Guardian, October 1992. Republished on Julian Evan’s website 10 June 2011.

The first time I rode in a Jaguar was as the guest of a Bordeaux wine merchant who had invited me to lunch at one of the family châteaux (his sister’s, I think). His idea of le chic britannique was to drive with one hand on the wheel and his foot on the floor, down roads lined with broom that swept the flanks of the dusty, hurtling car.

The second time was a few weeks ago, in Antibes. I had an exhibition to go to, followed by lunch and later an award ceremony and dinner for a literary prize.

I had dawdled in my hotel room, wondering how to get to the exhibition. Eventually I decided to order a taxi and took the lift down to the hotel reception. On the apron outside, the sun bouncing off the glossy declivity of its bonnet, a Jaguar was waiting.

The French possess a unique ability to appropriate elements of other nations’ identity and recreate them as their own. Their skyscrapers, their tweed caps and their seasides once belonged somewhere else, and now they’re completely French. In Britain the rakish Jaguar XJ6 is a serious (which means class-conscious) reward of mercantile or political labour. Owning a Jaguar is something a company director rises to. In France a Jaguar is ultimately a toy; a plaything, no stranger to amusement. One begins to suspect the French of a certain income of giving each other Jaguars for Christmas. I say this because, in my experience, there are conventions to the awarding of literary prizes and the provision of chauffeur-driven Jaguars for visiting journalists is not one of them.

The Prix Jacques Audiberti de la Ville d’Antibes, worth 50,000 francs to the laureate, was set up four years ago to honour a writer with a special interest in the Mediterranean. In four years, it has twice been awarded to a British writer, the first time to Lawrence Durrell, and this year to Patrick Leigh Fermor. (The other two laureates, Jacques Lacarrière and Jacqueline de Romilly, have been French.)

Audiberti was a playwright and poet. He was born into the artistic community of Antibes, a cosmopolitan list which, apart from Picasso and Graham Greene, includes Guy de Maupassant, Jules Verne, Scott Fitzgerald, Nicolas de Staël and Nikos Kazantzakis. Audiberti is one of that long roll of second-division writers whom the French enjoy and do not forget. They stay in print, and have streets – and prizes – named after them.

The willingness of this small seaside town to honour foreign writers is one of its obscurer virtues. From the perspective of a country that pays only lip service to literary internationalism (the Booker’s Commonwealth entry requirements are, after all, based on an imperial notion of extended British citizenship), it is interesting.

As Michel Déon, the president of the jury – an Academician and a hugely successful novelist in France and continental Europe – said to me at the award ceremony that evening: ‘I lived in Southend before the war. I remember it as a beautiful place of villas and tennis courts. I think I am the only person to have written a novel set in Southend. But I think I will wait a very long time if I wait for an invitation to go back.’

Antibes is a rich, old town, top-heavy with money and reserve. The villas on the Cap, lived in all year round, are bounded by high white walls inset with electrically operated gates. Behind the walls, massed pines lead down discreetly lit drives to houses and cupolas of shiny stucco: Belgravia-on-Sea. Antibes is a place where, if you step off the tourist rack, you feel you are likely to be asked your business. This is generally a less difficult question to answer if you are in the back of a Jaguar.

The association of literature with the very rich makes it suspect for some, but the town has little to gain from literary huckstering. It has the Musée Picasso in the Château Grimaldi; more wealthy tourists than it can carelessly accommodate; more than enough literary associations. (Graham Greene made it his home for twenty-five years before his death in 1991.) The Jacques Audiberti prize gives the impression of being itself a serious plaything for the town: a chance for it to indulge in some culturally-minded Mediterranean generosity.

Such questions of wealth and vanity would not occur to Patrick Leigh Fermor. He has spent almost sixty years adventuring outside England. For the last twenty-seven years he has lived on the edge of the Taygetus mountains in the Peloponnese in a house he built with his wife, Joan.

He describes this retreat with a flash of pleasure. ‘No social duties, no cocktail parties, no visiting!’ He says it as if reading from an embossed plate outside his front door.

He regards his success in France, where two of his books, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, have recently been translated for the first time, as an incredible stroke of fortune. A linguist, scholar and soldier, he was stationed with resistance forces in Crete for two years in World War Two because he had learnt ‘obsolete Greek’ at school; he organised and carried out the kidnap of the German commander on the island, General Kreipe (who thus became the only German general to reach Cairo).

Fifty years later, he has not lost the diffident speech habits of the officer class. ‘Total delight,’ he says, raising his eyebrows high. ‘Frightfully pleased and honoured. A miracle, really….’

In fact the lightness Leigh Fermor conveys in person predates the war: it goes back to the fag end – the closing bars – of the Jazz Age, when he lived in bohemian circumstances in Mayfair’s Shepherd Market. It is also misleading as a clue to his books. His chronicles of a young man trudging across Europe to Constantinople are a lengthy essay in cheerfulness. Their greatest charm is that he mines every scene for positive impressions, even a Bierkeller in Cologne packed with Brownshirts or a Bratislavan brothel.

There is also an unstudied erudition to his writing. In the case of the brothel, he can name four authors – Lucian, Juvenal, Petronius and Villon – that it conjures up. He has a fascination for language, for its passage through history and dialect; he is able to winkle out in his later book of wanderings in northern Greece the seesaw of fortune that has the Greeks proud to call themselves ‘Romios’ at one era, then turns it into a term of abuse in the next, post-Byzantium. Few writers have explained, as he does in Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece, a love for a country more eloquently than this:

‘I had begun to grasp, in the past few weeks, one of the great and uncovenanted delights of Greece; a pre-coming-of-age present in my case: a direct and immediate link, friendly and equal on either side, between human beings, something which melts barriers of hierarchy and background and money and, except for a few tribal and historic feuds, politics and nationality as well. It is not a thing which functions in the teeth of convention, but in almost prelapsarian unawareness of its existence. Self-consciousness, awe and condescension (and their baleful remedy of forced egalitarianism), and the feudal hangover and the post-Fall-of-the-Bastille flicker – all the gloomy factors which limit the range of life and deoxygenize the air of Western Europe, are absent. Existence, these glances say, is a torment, an enemy, an adventure and a joke which we are in league to undergo, outwit, exploit and enjoy on equal terms as accomplices, fellow-hedonists and fellow-victims. A stranger begins to realize that the armour which has been irking him and the arsenal he has been lugging about for half a lifetime are no longer needed. Miraculous lightness takes their place.’

Leigh Fermor was born in the second year of the Great War. He roamed free on a Northamptonshire farm for four years as a foster-child, and when his mother and sister came to fetch him they got a small savage back.

He was tamed by degrees, but the lawless years stamped him. Schools couldn’t hold him; a psychiatrist recommended a very advanced school for difficult children near Bury St Edmunds, an exotic paradise where children and staff performed nature-worshipping eurhythmics naked together in a barn. Later he ran away from prep school, and he was sacked from the King’s School in Canterbury after being discovered, at the end of a chain of reckless behaviour, making love to a shopgirl on some upturned apple-baskets.

His gallant and long-suffering mother made attempts to settle him, but her greatest gift was the imagination to see that he had to be allowed freedom. His first wanderings across Europe would nowadays be a stunt for a professional travel writer. Leigh Fermor walked because he was poor, he was young, and he wanted to go as slowly as he could. His rule was that he would only accept lifts in bad weather. He met Robert Byron in a nightclub: ‘dragon-green Byzantium loomed serpent-haunted and gong-tormented’. He set out on 9th December 1933 and did not come back to England until 1937.

Books came later. An illuminating story connects the delay to his close and lifelong attachment to women. (In print these adventures are delicately recounted. A sentence from a description of an affair with a married Hungarian girl in a red skirt sums them up – ‘All had marvellously changed of a sudden… during the next two nights and days, all unentwined moments seemed a waste.’)

This story comes up in a roundabout way when I ask him if Greece is the place where he has been most happy. He begins to talk about Moldavia. When the walk came to an end, he became friends with a family who had a rambling country house there: he stayed for two years.

‘I was very attached to one member of the household, a girl, and we were having an idyllic time, picnics and riding, watching the reaping and all the hayricks being made. We rode all over northern Moldavia and Bessarabia. Suddenly war broke out, and I had no prescient feeling that the war was going to last as long or tear everything up by the roots, so I left a lot of things there, including my great fat battered green diary which had all my travels in.

‘When the Communists took over, the family were given a quarter of an hour to pack and only allowed to take one suitcase each, and this great friend of mine who I adored, saw my diary lying on top of a bookcase. It caught her eye and she chucked it into the bag she took off with her to the Carpathian foothills, where they were forced to settle. I was blacklisted and couldn’t get back to see her for twelve years. Eventually I smuggled myself in, and I arrived at her house and there it was on the table: the diary that all these books are based on. It was a miraculous recovery.’

Leigh Fermor’s miraculous Europe has vanished. The castles he was invited to have been turned into lunatic asylums; the hillocks of Moldavia have been bulldozed; the amiable nineteen-year-old freak that everyone took under their wing has been succeeded by whole populations. But there is a thoroughness – an almost architectural thoroughness – to his re-creation of the journey. The books are a restoration project. Of the final volume, he is ‘making very heavy weather. I go back to a country and follow the route very roughly to see if I am going to drop any terrific bricks – “I sat dreamily in the marketplace and gazed up at the weathercock on the cathedral”, that sort of thing, so I go back to see if the weathercock is visible from there or not. And recently I went back to Bulgaria, and it put me off my stroke frightfully. They were cheerful people, marvellous singers, and now it is entirely soulless, organised in a Marxist sort of way, and with it the death of all joy and pleasure, and’ – he pauses to stare hard into the pre-Marxist past – ‘that upset me terribly.’

His excursion into civilisation this time around might have been expected to put him off his stroke. But he very nearly bounces as he says: ‘Terrific fun.’ Antibes, unlike Bulgaria, is more or less as it was, in the glamour of the Fitzgerald years.

Several events are laid on. There is, in fact, a celebration of British writing. It is Graham Greene’s birthday, and an exhibition of his life is opened on the second floor of the Musée Picasso. The town wanted to name a square in Greene’s honour, but his estate said that things were not done like that in England. (It is difficult not to cavil at British stiffness: our ambassador has twice been invited and has not replied.) The secretary of the prize, Pierre Joannon, throws a lunch at his villa, on a terrace the size of a tennis court, overlooking the Golfe-Juan. Greene’s partner Yvonne Cloetta is there, looking elegant and frail, and so is Vivienne, Paddy Campbell’s widow. ‘If he were still alive,’ she says sweetly, ‘he would kill Peter Mayle.’ I spend some time talking to an American postgraduate with cornflower-blue eyes – she has been awarded the other prize of the day, which provides a grant to a student of Lawrence Durrell’s work – then I mention to M. Joannon that I would love a swim in his pool. He returns with an armful of swimming costumes.

At night the Jaguars ferry the guests down a succession of pine-masked drives, first for the prizegiving, to a villa whose lighted veranda and enormous garden recall Jay Gatsby’s East Egg mansion, and then to dinner at a ‘large, proud, rose-coloured hotel’: the Hôtel du Cap Eden Roc which was the model for Gausse’s Hôtel des Étrangers, the place of Dick and Nicole Diver’s first appearance in Tender Is the Night.

Towards the end of dinner, Leigh Fermor stands to tell the mayor of Antibes in his diffident way what a wonderful gift he has of doing it all so lightly. One of the last and unlikeliest of the Bright Young Things is at home here, despite the social duties, while I retain a brief contrasting memory of the self-conscious beauty contests that are literary prizes in Britain. On the way back to our hotel I am consoled by another Fitzgeraldian moment, as the Jaguar is overfull and I find an American academic with cornflower-blue eyes sitting on my lap in the front seat.

You need to watch the French sometimes. They have a habit of equating writing with glamour that in recent years has led to endless novels with architect heroes and slight storylines in oriental settings. On this occasion, they succeeded in making a robust occidentalist – a virtuoso of the unfinished journey and rescuer of a disappeared past – one of their own. He joins the Jaguar.

Patrick Leigh Fermor … This is Your (Ill Met by Moonlight) Greek Life

The abduction gang - PLF centre Moss to his left

This is a wonderful find brought to us by Blog reader Erik Bruns.

Many will remember the TV show This is Your Life. Greek television had their own version, and in 1972 it was Paddy’s turn to be embarrassed and surprised by meeting again people that he had come across in his life. His surprise and clear delight at meeting with the ‘Abduction Gang’ of Cretan Andartes is clear. The ‘senior’ partisans, Manoli and George (see picture left) are the first two guests, and they seem barely changed.

The highlight must be when the presenter introduces a slightly frail General Heinrich Kreipe. Paddy is delighted to see him again, and immediately starts to talk to the General in German saying how good it is to see him after all these years.

I am amused as one of the Cretans takes the General’s arm to help him sit down; maybe he did the same before on that road to the Villa Ariadne, but was perhaps a little less gentle on that occasion!

There follows what is one of television’s most wonderful scenes as Paddy acts as translator answering the presenter in Greek and then switching back to German to speak to the General.

Take fifteen minutes of your life to watch Paddy, and all these great men, as they share their experiences of an event which took place thirty years before, with great animation and clear joy.

I have a feeling that there was a pretty good party afterwards with plenty of Ouzo and Retsina!

Anthony Lane’s New Yorker article on Fermor is now free to view

Anthony Lane's New Yorker article, May 2006

In trying to make this blog a focal point for all information related to Paddy I have had some problems accessing all on-line material. The one I most sought is the acclaimed May 22, 2006 profile by Anthony Lane which was published in the New Yorker.

This has sat behind their subscriber firewall, tempting us with one-off subscriptions. Now it appears that (possibly marking Paddy’s death?) this is no longer the case. You can now visit their archive, read the article in full on-line, print it or possibly even download it.

There are many profiles of Paddy. This is probably one of the longest and best, and includes interview material with him that many will have not seen before.

Take a trip to the New Yorker website and have a read.

Editor’s Note:  the pdf download appears to be no longer available – click on the article to magnify to read and then drag your cursor to move around the page.

Maggie Rainey-Smith’s tribute to Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor and her 2007 meeting

Please read Maggie Rainey-Smith’s tribute and further thoughts on her 2007 visit to Paddy’s house in Kardamyli.

The article includes some lovely new photographs, including pictures with Paddy inside his house